The Quiet Rise of Real-Time Operations Centers

Martin Lukacs, reporting for the Breach last year:

Working around-the-clock in special rooms or wings of police stations, these so-called “real-time operations centres” are the cornerstone of a shift to confront what police call the “new challenges” of a digital age.

They are intended to provide “virtual backup” for police officers in any situation, supplying them with information drawn from deep social media monitoring, private and public closed-circuit televisions (CCTV), open-ended data collection, and algorithmic mining.

Over the last 10 years, the surveillance centres have been quietly set up within police forces from Halifax to Vancouver, with no public debate about their functions, corporate relationships, or impacts.

The police services contacted by the Breach refused to comment. As Lukacs writes, Real-Time Operations Centres — more often referred to as Real-Time Crime Centres in the U.S. — were conceived without public consultation and are operated with little oversight; their lack of response to quite reasonable press questions does little to change that narrative.

Zac Larkham, Wired:

Each RTCC is slightly different, but their function is the same: gather surveillance data across a city and use that to build a live picture of crime in the city. Police departments have an array of technologies available to them that span from CCTV, gunshot sensors, and social media monitoring to drones and body cameras. In Ogden, Utah, police even floated the idea of a 30-foot “crime blimp.” In many cases, images that police systems collect are run through facial recognition technology, and the data gathered is often used in predictive policing. In Pasco County, Florida, which operates an RTCC, the sheriff’s office’s predictive policing system encouraged officers to continuously monitor and harass residents for minor code violations such as missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass.

On the plus side, “Crime Blimp” sounds like a great movie.

On the other hand, the apparent capabilities of these Centres are worrisome. Larkham notes it is hard to figure out how effective they are, if at all, while storing massive surveillance records. It is also worth pointing out how different a picture this paints from law enforcement’s frequent public pleading that it is “going dark” by losing its ability to gather evidence and investigate crimes. Meanwhile, a tiny county in Florida fights crime with the help of real-time surveillance and an autonomous drone.