Gadgets: Technology & Inventions

Heading off crime once depended heavily on “people on the inside”, able to see and hear events in real time. Eventually, stake outs and undercover would be replaced, or at least supplemented by “the bug”, telephone wiretapping, radio intercept, hidden video cameras, later joined by credit card tracking, face and gait recognition algorithms on social networks, iris scanning, GPS tracking, satellite and drone surveillance and political profiling based on key word searches, library activity, banking history, email and telephone records, for signs of crime or sedition (Regan).

they are watching


Since fingerprinting, many more new backward looking surveillance technologies have been discovered. Biometrics, literally “life measurement,” uses the body’s measurements and other characteristics to identify it. These include fingerprinting, DNA, blood type, facial recognition, gait recognition, voice recognition, iris scanning and hand symmetry. Earlier technologies such as fingerprinting and blood typing, while not originally developed for police work quickly found their way in to investigative practices. Newer technologies, many still in development: automated facial recognition, gait recognition algorithms, iris scanning, voice recognition and online profiling have had surveillance capabilities in mind from the start as tools in the war, first on drugs, then against terrorism.


Blood typing

In 1901, Karl Landsteiner discovered ABO blood groups. In 1904, a case was closed due to Landsteiner’s research and the birth of blood analysis was born (Loyola).

Of course, blood contains DNA, so today, any drop of blood is as good as a fingerprint, although it takes longer to get a result. Blood typing is also a quicker process, so better for preliminary police investigations.

Face recognition

Automatic facial recognition from video surveillance in real time is a holy grail of security. Since the 1960’s, computerized face recognition has been evolving. By the 1990’s, it had gotten very good at identifying standardized photographs, such as driver license photos and mug shots. But three-dimensional recognition in real time has made major strides, and is liked for its unobtrusiveness (Zhaoxiang, et al).

Gait Recognition

Another biometric technology evolving is identifying people by the different ways they walk. Gait recognition algorithms have been being developed since the 1990’s and is valued for its lack of invasiveness, and for being effective at long distances, where iris scans, facial or hand geometry cannot be determined


Iris scan

In 1936, ophthalmologist Frank Burch proposed the concept of using iris patterns as a method to recognize an individual. The iris is the part of the eye that gives it color, and each person’s as different as fingerprints (FBI). In fact, while fingerprints use 100 reference points to validate, iris scans use 2000 points, making them more accurate than fingerprinting for telling identity.

Today, using a high resolution camera with near infrared light, irises can be scanned from several feet while the subject is moving, making it an unobtrusive and very accurate means of identity verification. It is currently used for high security locks and border crossings, and can be used to replace passwords.


Unlocking the code to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has revolutionized police investigation, including removing over 350 convicts, so far, from death row based on new DNA evidence (The Freedom Project).


It is the most effective backward looking surveillance tool out there, although it’s possible you could take the rap for a relative. Still, if you commit a crime, it is best not to leave any DNA behind.

The FBI Laboratory’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) began as a pilot software project in 1990 serving 14 state and local laboratories. Today, over 190 agencies participate in the National DNA Index System, offering leads on DNA evidence left at a crime scenes.

Other Surveillance

surveillance-art Cameras

In 1933, a Mr. Norbury, an amateur photographer and chicken keeper, invented the world’s first security camera in London. He caught an egg thief, who was found guilty on his photographic evidence. (

The first subminiature still camera used for spying was the Minox Riga, invented by Estonian, Walter Zapp, in the early 1930’s. By World War II, intelligence agencies all around the world were putting them on order.



In 1942, Closed Circuit Television systems were developed in Germany to monitor V-2 rocket launches. Since 1949, similar CCTV systems have been used in the US for rocket launch monitoring. Video surveillance was first reported in the American media in 1965, and by 1968, the first street surveillance cameras were installed in the main business district of the city of Olean, New York. The introduction of video cassette tape made recorded security footage possible, greatly expanding backward looking surveillance capability, and by the 1970’s, video surveillance was popular internationally (Top Surveillance Systems).

Mail Surveillance

Foreign visitors to the United States have been subject to having their mail monitored since the earliest days of the republic. During World War II, first the War Department and later the Office of Censorship monitored “communications by mail, cable, radio, or other means of transmission passing between the United States and any foreign country” (Fiset).

Aerial surveillance

Surveillance literally means “watched from above”, and in 1794 the French deployed the first hot air balloon to do battle field reconnaissance. World War I saw the first stealth spy plane, the Taube, whose translucent wings made it hard to see above an altitude of 1200 feet (Wikipedia, “Aerial Surveillance”).

Starting in 1953 to monitor the evolving Soviet nuclear threat, President Dwight Eisenhower approved surveillance flights over Soviet air space. On May 1, 1960, the U-2 spy plane of Francis Gary Powers was shot down by ground to air missiles from its cruising altitude of 70,000 feet over the Soviet Ural Mountains. At first, Eisenhower tried to claim the plane had strayed off course, but when it was revealed that Powers was still alive and in KGB custody, America’s spy program was exposed, and Soviet-American relations turned colder. Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, would wait for the new president, John F. Kennedy, to take office before he would once again pursue détente with America (US State Department).

By the time Kennedy took office, spy planes were being displaced by the new satellite technology.

Satellite Surveillance


In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik I, and a new age of surveillance was born. Lockheed Martin launched its Corona satellite in 1959, and through 1972 had launched more than 100 more. The satellite was used for earth mapping as well as spying, and could make out something on the ground down to six feet in diameter. They were also helpful to law enforcement to detect illegal forest logging and toxic dumping, and locating burial sites of murder victims (CNN, By the year 2000, the Kennan “Keyhole-class” (KH) reconnaissance satellite could identify something on the ground down to 5” in diameter. Keyhole is much like the Hubble Space telescope, but its high resolution digital lens is aimed at the earth, not deep space. (


Osama bin Laden’s compound satellite shot

Anyone who has “flown over” their neighborhood using Google Earth can see the pervasiveness of satellite technology today. In the early 2000’s, Stanford University invented the Cubesat, a small satellite that can be put in to low earth orbit cheaply. Over 100 have been sent up, so far, including one recently by a high school class.

Companies are looking for ways to monetize these technologies, whether selling images to Google Earth, or, high resolution photos and videos of strategic structures or areas for intelligence. As algorithm technologies progress and allow analysis of vast quantities of stored images, incorporating weather information and other data, one company, SkyLab, hopes to cash in on developing a massive database available for searches. In theory, at least, for instance, cars parked in all Walmart parking lots on all Black Fridays could be counted; plug in local demographics and other information, and come out with a pretty good guess as to how the secretive, privately owned company is doing over time. Or, perhaps, one could assess corn and other crops for predicting investment in futures markets (Meyer).

Telephone Wiretaps

The old stand-by of police investigation, monitoring of what have come to be termed telephone “land lines” has been an investigative staple. Prior to 1967, under Olmstead vs. United States, 1928, “trespass law”, laws enforced to protect private property from unwanted intrusion, were written to protect places, not individuals. In 1967, Katz vs. United States extended trespass to people and their right to privacy and the privacy doctrine was born. Our “expectation of privacy” has been the guiding legal principle keeping discretion, at least for telephone wiretaps, in the hands of the courts (McAninch, 1991; Bloss, 1996).

But, as we have seen, that principle is deeply threatened as the Internet Generation sees nothing inhibiting about posting incriminating selfies of underage drinking, reckless driving, etc. on Facebook or Instagram, all enabled by our own, portable “Telescreen”.

Motorola 1st cell phone

The first cellular telephone from Motorola

Cell Phone Monitoring

Worried that cellular technology was undermining the effectiveness of wiretapping telephones, in 1994, congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA ( The legislation required that cell phone carriers include switching technology to allow a carrier to “switch on” any cell phone line, giving it over to surveillance, once a court order is received.

While most carriers and cell phone companies have cooperated, Apple has said no. In response to Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread government snooping, the iPhone 6 now encrypts photos, emails and contacts using a complex algorithm unique to each phone and unknown to the company ( They comply with the requirement to supply the information, but it is in a form of gibberish unusable without the code, which must be physically provided by the phone. The legal arguments for this are too complex for this work, but be sure they are trying to protect freedom of speech and association, and oppose overstepping invasiveness.

It is no longer just the government that has the power to listen in on cell phone calls. Cell phone apps are sold on line and can be used to monitor use of someone’s cell phone, their calls, net surfing, location, etc. Live calls can also be surreptitiously monitored and recorded. Ostensibly for use of employers to track employees (a whole other can of worms), the technology appears available to anyone with $50-250 to spare