Baltimore PD Can Keep Tabs On The Entire City, Thanks To Privately-Donated Aerial Surveillance System
from the thanks-for-flying-Air-Baltimore dept
When all you have is repurposed war gear, everything looks like a war zone.
It’s not just the Pentagon handing out mine-resistant vehicles and military rifles to any law enforcement agency that can spell “terrorism” correctly on a requisition form. It’s also the FBI acting as a gatekeeper (and muzzle) for cell phone-tracking hardware originally developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The latest addition to the pantheon of “war gear, but for local law enforcement” is aerial surveillance. While this sort of surveillance is nothing new — police have had helicopters for years — the tech deployed to capture recordings is.
Bloomberg has a long, in-depth article on aerial surveillance tech deployed by the Baltimore Police Department — all without ever informing constituents. Baltimore isn’t the first city to deploy this repurposed military tech. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department gave the same gear a test run back in 2014. The LASD also did little to inform the public about its purchase, claiming that people might get paranoid and/or angry if they knew.
Baltimore’s acquisition of Persistent Surveillance Systems’ 192-million megapixel eye in the sky also occurred under the cover of governmental darkness. The tech was given to the police and paid for by a private donor — which kept the public out of the loop and any FOIA-able paper trail to a minimum.
Last year the public radio program Radiolab featured Persistent Surveillance in a segment about the tricky balance between security and privacy. Shortly after that, McNutt got an e-mail on behalf of Texas-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold. John is a former Enron trader whose hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, made billions before he retired in 2012. Since then, the Arnolds have funded a variety of hot-button causes, including advocating for public pension rollbacks and charter schools. The Arnolds told McNutt that if he could find a city that would allow the company to fly for several months, they would donate the money to keep the plane in the air. McNutt had met the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s ground-based camera system on the trade-show circuit, and they’d become friendly. “We settled in on Baltimore because it was ready, it was willing, and it was just post-Freddie Gray,” McNutt says. The Arnolds donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit that administers donations to a wide range of local civic causes.
The cameras are able to capture activity across the city. The resolution may seem high, but the area covered by the cameras still makes individuals nearly unidentifiable. What it does do is provide a wide-angle look at the movements of these humans reduced to pixels by current tech limitations. Rather than just provide a closer inspection of certain areas, the scope of what’s captured allows law enforcement to rewind their way through people’s lives, seeing where certain pixels go and what pixels they interact with… and where those pixels go. The ability to trace movements backward can provide law enforcement with details on where criminal activities originate and where possible co-conspirators might be located. It also helps officers track down suspects who have fled from crime scenes.
While it’s certain to provide some investigative use, it also gives the Baltimore PD an unprecedented overview of entire neighborhoods for it to peruse in hopes of discovering something that justifies its deployment. It expended zero manhours informing the public, however, before putting it to use. The BPD is already facing heat due to the unconstitutional deployments (multiple thousands of them) of its Stingray devices. Now it has another bit of questionable war tech in use and it’s still refusing to discuss it.
Where the city stands in this approval process — if there even was one — remains a mystery. City officials aren’t discussing the surveillance tech either. If there was any oversight of the high-tech donation, no records have surfaced.
The only party that seems comfortable talking about the surveillance tech is the person behind Persistent Surveillance Systems, Ross McNutt.
McNutt often says that when he stares into the computer monitors, the dots moving along the sidewalks and streets are mere pixels to him. Nothing more. If anyone else wants to project identifying features onto them—sex, race, whatever—that’s their doing, not his. Even as the technology advances and the camera lenses continue to get more powerful, he says, his company will choose to widen its viewing area beyond the current 30 square miles rather than sharpen the image resolution. He’s exasperated when his system is criticized not for what it does, but for its potential.
The potential is the problem. Surveillance systems like these are prone to both feature creep and mission creep. If they’re already being deployed secretly, the chances for abuse move from merely “probable” to “almost inevitable.” McNutt may be extremely open about his tech and its capabilities, every law enforcement agency that has made use of it has been the polar opposite. And when private donors skirt procurement processes and other red tape by purchasing surveillance tech for law enforcement agencies, a certain amount of accountability disappears.
If an agency feels it’s counterproductive to gauge public sentiment before deploying more surveillance tech, the least it can do is keep them informed about upcoming changes. But the Baltimore PD did none of that. It simply took its expensive surveillance gift and put it to work.