The Military-Style Surveillance Technology Being Tested in American Cities

" Even the most secretive organizations in the U.S. government are not necessarily safe from aerial observation. In the spring of 1998, an NSA employee who goes by the nickname Cheebie was standing in the parking lot of the agency’s headquarters, in Maryland, when a civilian helicopter equipped with a strange, round object under its nose flew directly overhead. A group of employees inside the building worried that the helicopter crew might have even been able to see into their offices through their open blinds.

Read: Mass surveillance is coming to a city near you

As it turned out, the helicopter was being operated by a film crew working on—believe it or not— Enemy of the State . It was taking a series of establishing shots of the agency’s sleek glass complex. Cheebie and other employees asked the NSA administration whether the agency could have done anything to prevent the flight. They couldn’t. “Believe me,” wrote one public-relations official in response to the queries, “we tried.”

The only caveat to police aerial-surveillance activities is that they must employ publicly accessible technology , a term that has been defined, somewhat vaguely, in a small number of court cases. In two cases from the 1980s stemming from investigations in which police used cameras aboard helicopters to spot marijuana plants, the Supreme Court ruled that the law-enforcement agencies had not violated the Fourth Amendment, because both helicopters and commercial cameras are generally publicly available (if not exactly affordable).

In another case, Kyllo v. United States , in which police looking for indoor marijuana plants pointed an infrared camera at the plaintiff’s garage from a public vantage point, the Court ruled that the police’s actions constituted a warrantless search, because an infrared camera did not constitute a publicly available technology."

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