The FBI surveillance planes that circled Baltimore during protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death showed how police have the capability to monitor the city from above without the public knowing. But that may be remembered as a pilot compared to the latest revelation.
According to a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, surveillance planes run by a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems help police investigate crimes everyday. Since January, the company has flown Cessnas outfitted with a surveillance system developed for use by the military in Iraq. It was first dubbed Angel Fire, but now that it’s gone commercial, founder Ross McNutt describes it as “Google Earth with Tivo capability,” journalist Monte Reel reports.
The technology uses a collection of wide-angle cameras that can scan an area of “roughly 30 square miles.” Photos are taken every second to create a “searchable, constantly updating photographic map” of the area. People aren’t identifiable, but the footage is saved on hard drives and combed as part of investigations. The value is in the location info.
Here’s a publicly available Persistent Surveillance demo from Dayton, Ohio:
The report details how the planes were used to track a suspect following the murder of elderly siblings, but are also involved for more routine crimes and tracking dirt-bike crews. Police seem to be on board with the investigative capabilities the flights offer, but that doesn’t mean they’re talking about it.
BPD refused to comment on the Bloomberg piece and haven’t released anything publicly about the program. One reason it didn’t come out may be a nonexistent money trail. The report indicates Persistent Surveillance’s work in Baltimore is being funded by private philanthropists who made a donation to the Baltimore Community Foundation.
The company’s shorter-term work in other cities like Dayton and Compton, Calif., was previously profiled on Radiolab and Ars Technica, among other outlets. McNutt told Bloomberg he values transparency, and thinks it can help the system reduce crime. But issues surrounding privacy arose when the program went public in both those cities.
In Baltimore, it’s not the first time the city has confronted the idea of ever-present eyes. Baltimore Police already utilize Citiwatch cameras for ground-level surveillance, and the city is the center of the debate over a secretive cellphone tracking device called the stingray. Plus there was that whole blimp episode. Still, an ACLU privacy expert quoted by Reel suggests Persistent Surveillance raises the stakes.
“Big Brother, which everyone has always talked about, is finally here,” he said.