Baltimore cops: We flew high-res camera planes to film your every move

Google-Earth-meets-Tivo service paid for by Texan billionaire

Analysis Police in Baltimore, US, have admitted hiring a third party to fly over the city, constantly recording events with high-resolution cameras.

The admission comes after a Businessweek feature on the company, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), led to a condemnation of the practice by the ACLU's privacy expert and media pressure on the cops to acknowledge the program.

Despite having refused to comment or recognize the program's existence, and despite officers having failed to inform the public or its mayor or city council, a police spokesman claimed the deal with PSS was "not a secret surveillance program," adding that there was "no conspiracy not to disclose it."

That's not the only unusual detail: the cost of the program – described as "Google Earth with Tivo" – was covered by a Texas billionaire, something that critics say was a useful way for the police to avoid having to ask permission to carry out the surveillance.

For a police force that is already reeling from an excoriating official report produced by the Department of Justice published earlier this month, and ongoing criticism over its extensive use of the controversial Stringray cellphone-tracking system, the claim that the Baltimore police force was being straight with its citizens has been met with some understandable skepticism.

PSS

As the ACLU's senior policy analyst and privacy expert Jay Stanley told Businessweek in its extensive report on PSS, the system – which uses a bank of cameras on a plane to provide a live-feed and 45-day archive of all activity in a 30-square-mile area – is "where the rubber meets the road" when it comes to the balance between security and privacy.

The technology was initially designed for use by the US military in Iraq, enabling forces to track the perpetrators of roadside bombs. Recorded footage enabled the military to go back in time following an explosion to identify the culprits and their stops and hideouts. Likewise it could go forward in time to see where they went after they had placed the bomb.

The technology was undoubtedly useful and the company's president Ross McNutt decided to launch it commercially. An earlier customer was the mayor of crime-ridden Mexican border town Juarez, and its successful use to track down a killing in the town was then used as promotional material by PSS.

However, use of the system in the United States proved more controversial, especially when citizens learned that their activities were being monitored. Trials in both Compton in California and Dayton in Ohio had police excited about the possibilities, but both were scrapped when those being recorded raised objections.

It was an interview with McNutt on podcast Radiolab in which he outlined his problems that led to Texan John Arnold – who made billions as a former Enron trader – offering to fund a more extensive rollout. McNutt knew that Baltimore police were interested in the system, and with no need to pay for it, they signed up. They just didn't tell anyone about it.

Pros and cons

When the cops saw what the PSS technology was capable of, they were consistently excited about the possibilities. In a city ravaged with crime, it's not hard to see why.

The arrest of a man that police have charged with the shootings of a 90-year-old woman and her 82-year-old brother was almost entirely thanks to the technology, combined with traditional police work. PSS was able to track his route, providing vital clues that would have been impossible to gather otherwise. Later, a motorcyclist whose gang assaulted a police detective was tracked and arrested.

The problem, as ever, comes in the lack of clear policies and the opportunity for the system to be simply and dangerously abused.

As we reported in May, the Stringray cell tower simulator was used by cops in Maryland to track down a man who had stolen $50 of chicken wings. In PSS' case, the technology was used to track down a wood thief. Once the police have a tool they are going to want to use it.

But as Stanley argues in his blog post: "It is the technological equivalent of having a GPS attached to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our door. This is a technology that promises to do for our physical movements what the NSA has aimed to do with our communications: collect it all."

There is also a dangerous lack of clear communication between the police – who are supposed to serve their citizens – and the citizens themselves, suspicious of their protectors. The situation is especially bad in the United States, thanks to the issue of race and long-held concerns of institutional racism.

Secrecy

The mounting tensions and suspicions between the two sides have only gotten worse with the introduction of military equipment and technology that has further separated communities from police – the most famous example being the extraordinary images of police dressed like an occupying army in Ferguson following riots sparked by the death of an unarmed black man, shot by a white policeman with seemingly little justification.

With PSS' system having twice been set aside thanks to citizens' concerns, there is little doubt that the Baltimore police force – already on the stand for its abusive treatment – knew that if it was open about its use of the aerial surveillance, the opportunity to experiment with the technology would have been lost before it started.

That level of secrecy will almost certainly lead to the program being scrapped as well as contribute to an even greater level of mistrust. It is also unclear whether the program is itself legal. McNutt cites two Supreme Court decisions, but they both concerned short-term flyovers of private property: the PSS system was flying for 10 hours a day over the city, providing, as its name suggests, "persistent surveillance."

As ever with technology, the answer is not to ban it, or to use it indiscriminately or secretly: the answer is to have open and public discussions about what to do and develop policies that strike an acceptable balance.

With this latest scandal, that discussion is going to have to take place far away from the tarnished Baltimore police force. ®


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