KARACHI: Somewhere in a dark alley a phone call is made and five minutes later two men on a motorcycle execute their deadly mission – an innocent bystander or specified target is gunned down.
As the killers make their way through the city, a police team begins to receive visuals of the escape route in a darkened room full of monitors and computers.
They use satellite imaging to zoom in on the suspects, make the necessary calls, and the miscreants are tracked down to their lair. This is the kind of scenario an ordinary citizen imagined when Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that the government had hired the services of experts on using satellite imaging to curb target killings in Karachi.
Satellite imaging has been used across the globe to highlight aspects of an ongoing war or for damage assessment in natural calamities. Most recently, the government has begun to use Google Earth to determine the growth of illegal encroachments in Karachi by comparing and contrasting the growth of housing in a location over a number of years.
Satellite imaging has also been used in war zones or conflict areas to ascertain damage, such as the destruction and disappearance of entire villages in Darfur.
More ambitiously, the United States has used satellite imaging along the border with Mexico to control drug trafficking by monitoring the movement of traffickers along the empty border space where the slightest activity triggers sensors and lets authorities know illegal crossings are taking place. However, an anti-terrorism expert contacted by The Express Tribune said using satellite imaging to tackle target killings in an overpopulated, overcrowded city is a fantasy.
“This is not a Hollywood movie where you can just zoom in on criminal activity. Besides the technological challenges involved in such an undertaking and such a setup would require massive budgets… there are far more feasible technological devices available.”
Currently, CCTV cameras are one of the most efficient surveillance devices available. High quality cameras with the right software and placed at strategic points can be used to identify culprits, and could serve to drive wary target killers off the main roads. According to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Karachi currently has CCTV cameras controlled from three departments, the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), Traffic Police and the Sindh IT department. Unfortunately none of these cameras are efficient enough to be used for such a task, and none of the departments have CCTV cameras installed in the sensitive areas of Karachi, such as Orangi town and Liaquatabad.
The police confirmed that there are plenty of options available to the government, but more importantly, the devices already available are not being utilised properly.
He said that most departments do not have easy access to existing technologies like mobile phone tracking, and such facilities are going down the drain. “Jumping into new technologies would clearly be a waste of money and resources.”
Satellite imaging is an option which would serve better in identifying illegal activity on a macro level, rather than pinpointing individuals, while wiretapping is a controversial option which the authorities can use to identify individuals and track them down.
A newer technology that has been proposed and is widely used across the United States is the ‘ShotSpotter’. The ShotSpotter lays out a network of sensors in an area and is used to detect loud sounds. Once a sound has been detected the computer identifies the type of sound, the area where it occurred and sends a signal to a dispatch team which visits the location.
Not only does the system identify sounds, it keeps a record of the event for help with trials if a culprit is caught. The system is successful to the point that it caused a drop of 40 percent in homicide cases in Los Angeles during the last three years.
Unfortunately, this system is quite costly and security officials highlight a key problem being the issue of aerial firing at celebrations rendering such a system ineffective. For the moment, it seems scientific dreams of preventing criminal activities in urban settings with the use of high-fangled devices has a very limited scope.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2010.