How the US Military’s Latest Surveillance Technology Was Inspired by Hollywood

A Q&A with ‘Eyes in the Sky’ author Arthur Holland Michel

Photograph of author Arthur Holland Michel
Photo: Lee Harris
Arthur Holland Michel is the author of the newly-released book 'Eyes in the Sky' about surveillance technology.
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A new type of aerial surveillance, enabled by rapid advances in imaging and computing technology, is quietly replacing traditional drone video cameras. Wide-area motion imaging (WAMI) aims to capture an entire city within a single image, giving operators a God-like view in which they can follow multiple incidents simultaneously, and track people or vehicles backward in time.

Arthur Holland Michel, founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone, a research institute at Bard College in New York, has written a new book about WAMI called Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All. This fascinating history details WAMI’s development by researchers at a national lab, its deployment by the US military, and its arrival as a crime-fighting tool—and possibly privacy nightmare—in the skies above America.

IEEE Spectrum talked with Michel prior to the publication of his book. What follows is transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Arthur Holland Michel on:

IEEE Spectrum: How is WAMI different from the video cameras on Predators or other drones?

Arthur Holland Michel: Traditional aerial spycraft systems, whether on drones or spy planes or helicopters, operate a bit like telescopes. They’re really good at staring at one individual target in very high fidelity. What this new technology proposes is precisely the opposite. The idea is to watch everything at once, to view the full picture.

When you do that, you gain all sorts of new powers. You can watch multiple different targets simultaneously. You can see the relationships between targets, to see if they’re part of the same adversary group. You can even see what happened when you weren’t paying attention.

It’s sometimes referred to as “Combat TiVo” because you can potentially rewind footage to see exactly what occurred, then rewind further to see who was involved and where they came from.

Spectrum: It sounds like a science fiction concept, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the 1998 movie Enemy of the State was the inspiration for WAMI.

Michel: The filmmakers used a helicopter and some clever editing tricks [to depict a fictional WAMI system]. An engineer [at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] saw the movie and thought it was a fantastic idea. He knew that it wasn’t a reality at the time but wondered what might be able to be achieved if he willed it into existence.

His first step was to reach out to people involved in that movie to find out how they did it. Actually, one of the folks involved in the movie stayed on with the project for many years, was involved in the earliest deployments of WAMI to Iraq, and continues to run a WAMI company today.

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Spectrum: Was the Global War on Terror a big impetus in getting WAMI built and deployed?

Michel: Absolutely. Certain organizations within the Pentagon really jumped at the idea. Because they knew the technology had wide possibilities for counter-insurgency, they were rushing to put the technology out.

In February 2006, there were news reports of a mid-air collision between two cargo aircraft in Wisconsin. One of the aircraft managed to land with some damage. The other crashed, killing three people on board.

What those articles failed to mention was that this was part of a highly secretive Army project to deploy WAMI to Iraq.

The mid-air collision didn’t have anything to do with the technology itself, but now the only two aircraft the program owned were unusable. They had to go into double-time to prepare new aircraft for deployment, which they accomplished in record time and deployed several months later.

By the late 2000s, WAMI was being used in Iraq and it’s still flying in a number of battlefields today.

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Spectrum: What are the technologies that enable WAMI?

Michel: Originally, the idea was literally to bolt a number of separate digital cameras to an aircraft, then feed their outputs into a processing system that stitched them together in software.

This soon hit a wall. The more cameras you bolt together, the larger the whole system becomes—and you’re talking about aircraft with limited carrying capacity.

The next generation got around that problem by ingeniously taking the tiny cameras that you can find in any smartphone and making a mosaic of hundreds of them on a single wafer. That wafer is then placed behind a lens, with the system acting like a composite of hundreds of individual cameras, working simultaneously.

But the more pixels that you generate, the more difficult it is to stitch all the images together. They turned to graphics processing units (GPUs), more commonly found in Xboxes, which were ideal for quickly stitching together vast numbers of pixels into composite images.

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Spectrum: Inevitably, perhaps, people started to see applications for this technology away from the battlefield.

Michel: There are active efforts to sell WAMI to law enforcement agencies, particularly in the United States, for domestic use. That is to say, literally taking cameras that were developed for military applications, parking them over large US cities and using them to do things like track organized crime, follows suspects in shootings, even down to [looking for] illegal dumping.

Those efforts have been ongoing since about 2008, but have been largely shrouded in secrecy. I spent a few eye-opening days in Baltimore in 2016 when the city was conducting the most extensive known WAMI program in the United States to date.

The second thing that’s happening is that many of the fundamental principles behind WAMI are appearing in other sorts of other surveillance technologies.

A lot of CCTV cameras, which also have the “soda straw” [narrow field of view] problem, are now coming equipped with wide-area capabilities. This means that instead of having to select one specific area to point at, or having multiple cameras dotted around, you can have a single camera that provides a very high resolution, in some cases 360-degree, view.

In a city where the CCTV coverage is very dense, that essentially creates a WAMI system where an entire city is watched continuously and unblinkingly.

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Spectrum: Which obviously raises all kinds of privacy and civil liberties issues.

Michel: Everybody who’s been involved in WAMI’s development agrees that if it’s misused or not properly regulated, it can be dangerous.

Current privacy protections in the United States were not created with this technology in mind. As technology evolves and becomes more powerful, the protections to control it need to keep up.

I do believe that there are a number of fairly straightforward steps that can be taken—things like standards for transparency when a city wants to acquire this technology, and minimum operating altitudes so that if a system is used, it can’t see people so closely that it can recognize their faces.

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Spectrum: But it’s not just a city-by-city issue, is it? In Enemy of the State, the fictional WAMI system was mounted on satellites, similar to the low earth orbit constellations we are starting to see today.

Michel: Many of the technological barriers to that vision of global WAMI have fallen in recent years. The cost of launching large constellations of satellites has fallen tremendously, and cameras have shrunk so that you can now put a very, very powerful camera on a relatively small satellite.

The frightening conclusion I came to while working on the book was that we’re probably headed to a future where every inch of the planet is surveilled, probably from space, at all times. It’s not a particularly cheery conclusion.

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Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All by Arthur Holland Michel was published Monday, 17 June by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $28.

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