Civic News

5 things we learned about Baltimore’s secret aerial surveillance system

After the Persistent Surveillance Systems program went public in a Bloomberg article, city officials talked about it publicly for the first time.

Baltimore from above.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The end of Bloomberg’s big story on the aerial surveillance program that a private company is running with the Baltimore Police Department effectively passed the ball to city leaders to comment. Though they didn’t say anything about the program in the eight months prior to the report, police did comment through statements and a press conference after the story’s release on Wednesday. Persistent Surveillance Systems founder Ross McNutt, who helped develop the technology for use in the Iraq war, also spoke. Here’s what we learned:

1. It’s called the Baltimore Community Support Program

And it has a website, complete with FAQs and info about hiring.
Police spokesman TJ Smith characterized the Cessna equipped with an array of wide-angle cameras as essentially “a mobile CitiWatch camera.” The system is capable of seeing an area of 32 square miles, which is more than a third of the city.
“We have the near real-time ability to follow up on a situation after a 911 call is made,” Smith said.
People look like pixelated dots, but the system offers location data that can help investigators that can then be used with the police’s ground-level cameras. Data is destroyed after a certain amount of time if it is not being used as part of an investigation, McNutt said.

2. Right now, it’s a test 

Police said they are still evaluating whether to permanently use the system. Smith said it hasn’t been flying continuously for eight months. It was flown for about 100 hours in January and February. In the summer, it flew for about 200 hours. The Cessna can only fly on clear days. Smith said it wasn’t in the air Wednesday because of maintenance.

3. What are the results so far?

So far, we mostly have anecdotal info. As described in the Bloomberg story, Smith said Persistent Surveillance Systems analyzed video following the shooting of two elderly people in February that eventually led to identifying the suspect. Smith also said it can help watch dirt-bike crews due to the police department’s “no chase” policy.
McNutt said a total of 102 investigative briefs have been provided to the city, and there was at least one case where the State’s Attorney used data to obtain an arrest warrant.
City officials said the plane may also be useful for other incidents like “fires, floods, sinkholes and train derailments.”

4. Why didn’t anyone else know about it?

This is the big question that hasn’t really been answered. In repeated questions from reporters, Smith’s answer basically boiled down to, It wasn’t a secret, we just didn’t tell anyone.
Smith said there was “no conspiracy” to hide it, adding that the city doesn’t put out a press release every time CitiWatch is upgraded. But the process was definitely outside of public view.
As WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller said at the press conference, city spending usually has to go through the city’s Board of Estimates, where the public can find out about it. That’s how we usually find out about new police devices. In this case, a $120,000 donation from Texas-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold went through the Baltimore Community Foundation, which administered the grant to police. It’s not the first time BCF has provided money to police, but usually it is for less controversial items.

5. People are upset

For one, people want to know why they’re only finding out about it this week. City Councilman Brandon Scott told the Baltimore Sun he didn’t know about the program before the Bloomberg article and the fact that it wasn’t revealed is “unacceptable.” The state Office of the Public Defender said it is “outraged,” and said the program is “akin to GPS monitoring of every citizen.”
“In the aftermath of the problems exposed regarding the illegal use of stingray cell phone tracking technology, as well as the Department of Justice’s report highlighting the unconstitutional practices within the Baltimore Police Department, it is particularly troubling that the Department continues to lack any transparency regarding its technology acquisitions and practices,” Paul DeWolfe, the Public Defender for Maryland, said in a statement.
The ACLU has been following Persistent Surveillance Systems for a few years, and an analyst said he is only more concerned now.
“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,” Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, Technology Project, wrote in a blog post.
Open Society Institute-Baltimore called for a “complete disclosure of the program so that it can be reviewed by the community and experts in civil liberties.”
McNutt said the surviellance is legal, and believes people will be happy with the results in reducing crime.
Police were emphatic that they aren’t tracking people, and said they will pursue tools that can help them reduce Baltimore’s notoriously high crime rate. Commissioner Kevin Davis promised a “robust and inclusive community conversation” if police decide to make the program permanent.
“The only people that should be concerned in the City of Baltimore are criminals,” Smith said.
It appears Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn’t know about the program from the start, but in a statement she said it’s an example of Baltimore leading in use of a new technology.
“Too often we see the larger cities across the country among the first to get new technology that helps protect their citizens,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “We are proud that we are among the leaders in a program like this that is being adopted in other cities across the country. We don’t always have to seek out best practices; Baltimore can also create them.”

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