By David Sutta

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – If Miami-Dade police get their way, a new surveillance program could be flying over Miami.  The program puts airplanes in the air, recording large parts of the county at a time.  While the planes could be a major crime fighting tool it could also mean a major change for your privacy.

“Officers can’t be everywhere. The community is crying out to solve some of these shooting cases,” Miami-Dade Police Assistant Director Alfredo Ramirez explained to CBS4’s David Sutta.

The department has applied for a grant to employ something called Wide Area Surveillance.  It comes from the Iraq war where it was used to track insurgents planting IED’s.  It involves launching Cessna airplanes outfitted with high-powered cameras.  The planes can fly up to 8 hours.  The cameras record roughly 32 square miles at a time.

“Let’s say a robbery happens at one location; we can go back to that and follow of the track,” Ramirez said.

The plane’s recorded footage shows a criminal as a little more than dot.  Their escape vehicle is just a few more dots.  But they could track the dots though to an intersection that’s monitored by high resolution cameras.  It could lead to a suspect’s face or a license plate.  Real leads to solve cold cases.

“The city of Baltimore is using it and so far it’s successful,” said Ramirez. “I think we would be negligent to not look at other cities and the different methods they are using to improve their policy mechanism in terms of fighting violent crime and other nuisances.”

However, not everyone loves the idea of mass aerial surveillance.

“This is a significant change in our society.  To put people under surveillance who are not suspected of a crime, to treat everyone like a criminal, to have cameras surveilling everybody,” American Civil Liberties Union executive director Howard Simon said.

Simon is taking issue with the program.  Mostly because the county is applying for a program without a plan to regulate it.

“It may be helpful to law enforcement but you don’t put it online until you have protections for privacy. Who is being surveilled?  How long will they be surveilled?  Who has access to the data?” Simon asked.

Miami-Dade Police told CBS4 they do not have guidelines yet, that they would be addressed later.  Right now they are simply applying for funds for the program.

They also pointed out the cameras will not capture faces or even your gender.

“This is merely pixels that is documenting trends of vehicle movements.  It’s just mapping.  We are not interested in what is in people’s backyards and it doesn’t show it.” said Ramirez.

Simon scoffed at the comment.

“I think the people of Miami-Dade should be concerned about this.  This is like the opening of the door. They may be pixels today, but they may be actual pictures tomorrow,” replied Simon.

A great example of how fast technology moves would be drones.  Just four years ago CBS4 News reported on Miami-Dade police deploying what was new high flying technology.  The device could be described as a flying lawnmower/garbage can that took grainy shots from above.  It was so big and so loud everyone on the block knew they were being watched.  Today though, drones, the size of your hand, are much quieter, and could easily go unnoticed. Privacy concerns brought up then for drones are now quite valid.  Simon suggests the same is true today with airplane surveillance and that commissioners should create policy first.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the county commission not forever, but first put in place restrictions that protect the rights of the people of Miami-Dade County, before you install new technology,” Simon said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has already applied for the grant.  However, Miami-Dade Commissioners must sign off on it.  They are expected to hear the issue Tuesday at a county commission meeting.  At this point, they are applying for the funds.

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