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.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 11:51am

    No it isn't

    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.

    If the city has been made aware of what's going on and remains silent in spite of that it's a pretty good indicator that they are in favor of what's going on and don't want to admit it.

    If they were against it it would be simple and easy to say so, if they were for it, likewise simple, the only reason to stay silent is because they are in favor and don't want to say so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 1:24pm

    I bet they'll hard code a black bar over the privileged neighborhoods. They don't want to embarrass the wrong people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 1:39pm

      Re:

      And I bet they will pay special attention to where the politicians live, so that they can get what they want from government.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 2:08pm

        Re: Re:

        You have it backwards. They are watching to make sure those unruly peasants do not bother their betters.

        You would be right if you were discussing the shadow organizations in the intelligence sector however...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 1:33pm

    Use common sense

    The moral of this story is to be aware of the commercialization of surveillance, especially when the companies tell you they're going to conduct citywide surveillance two years before.

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/07/a-tivo-for-crime-how-always-recording-airborne-cam eras-watch-entire-cities/

    Future headlines:

    * PD Can Keep Tabs On The Entire City, Thanks To Privately-Donated ALPR System
    * PD Can Keep Tabs On The Entire City, Thanks To Privately-Donated Facial Recognition System
    * PD Can Keep Tabs On The Entire City, Thanks To Privately-Donated MAC Address/IMSI System

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 1:42pm

    Clear and Present Danger

    It continues to be curious to me how representatives and agency officials, when they suspect a policy might get an unfavorable response from the public consider as their first option to continue with the policy, but make it secret.

    This is in contrast to other options that seem more in line with serving the people of the United States, such as first hearing and addressing concerns from the public in a public forum, or even avoiding unpopular or distasteful policy.

    It's also curious to me how a growing record of secret implementations of disagreeable policy have not turned into an indictment of our representatives and agents who endorse these policies, and endorse the method of secret implementation.

    When secret implementation is the accepted operating procedure, doesn't that mean we are no longer a for-the-people government? And if so, why do we continue to pretend that we are?

    Isn't this exemplary of clear and present tyrany against the people of the United States?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 4:21pm

      Re: Clear and Present Danger

      There should be calls for those who kept it secret to be impeached and removed from public office.

      I'm sure it was "sold" to them under the "war on terror" and "if we reveal our capabilities...".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Whatever (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 7:13pm

      Re: Clear and Present Danger

      "It continues to be curious to me how representatives and agency officials, when they suspect a policy might get an unfavorable response from the public consider as their first option to continue with the policy, but make it secret."

      There are plenty of police programs that the public do not like. If the police force was run as a popularity contest rather than with the goal of keeping the peace / applying the law, then you would have a disaster.

      What would go? Radar guns (nobody likes to get a speeding ticket) and parking meters and police writing tickets for that would go too. Police walking the beat? Out, that is like surveillance. Drug raids? Organized crime? Fuggedaboutit. Nobody wants the police arresting their friends (or their dealer!).

      So yes, lots of things happen quietly, away from the public's eye. A lot of programs that the public wouldn't like still run and exist. It's the nature of the game. Deep down we know we need police and we need law enforcement, yet we also have a deep desire to "get away with" stuff.

      Disagreeable policies that are legal are not an issue, just that you don't like them.

      The surveillance offered in this situation appears to be legal (ie, it captures what can be seen from the air, similar to a helicopter or plane). Any concerns for privacy are similar to those of a helicopter with a camera, and the courts have long since held that all of that is acceptable. Disagreeable to certain people, perhaps, but legal.

      As for private financing of the equipment, I don't really have an issue with it, provided it is used in an equal and fair handed manner, and the company providing the equipment does not extract benefit from the data collected except for testing purposes. Ptherwise, the police get an extra tool, something that might help us monitor police activities, and it just seems to be a pretty decent idea.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2016 @ 11:52pm

        Re: Re: Clear and Present Danger

        Your standards of what constitute as "equal and fair handed" are pretty suspect...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 27 Aug 2016 @ 11:39am

        Re: Re: Clear and Present Danger

        There are plenty of police programs that the public do not like. If the police force was run as a popularity contest rather than with the goal of keeping the peace / applying the law, then you would have a disaster.

        That doesn't follow. Firstly, we do make a lot of decisions by popularity contests (that is elections a la referendums), and as much as the people of the US suck at making decisions by popularity, we suck at appointing someone to make those decisions for us even more.

        At this time, the police across the states are a disaster, and we see their overreach time and time again. If anything the police have been given too much lattitude and need to be constrained, if not completely reformed.

        What would go? Radar guns (nobody likes to get a speeding ticket) and parking meters and police writing tickets for that would go too. Police walking the beat? Out, that is like surveillance. Drug raids? Organized crime? Fuggedaboutit. Nobody wants the police arresting their friends (or their dealer!).

        Debatable. No-one wants the powers of detection trained on them, true, but they do like having those powers trained on others. I suspect most of us would rather live in a lawful state in which no-one gets away with nothin' rather than anyone getting away with anything.

        But that's not the world we live in either. Rather ours is a world in which some people get away with stuff, some people don't. Other still get blamed for stuff they didn't do, and the police and officials get away with anything they want. This is not the equal justice on which our nation is supposedly founded.

        So yes, lots of things happen quietly, away from the public's eye. A lot of programs that the public wouldn't like still run and exist.

        Which is based on the presumption that someone knows better than the public what is good for them. How are such people chosen who get to decide in secret how to rule? By divine right of birth?

        The public may be dim, and have to learn from hard knocks, but no-one else is more qualified to make those decisions, and when someone does, it is invariably in favor of their own interests, not in the interest of the people.

        As Madison noted, men are not angels and this includes the people you would have rule in secret. The very fact that they have to implement their policies in secret is indicative, itself that they are up to no good.

        The phrases Taxation without representation and Nothing about us without us are part of our nation's history for a reason. The problems we're having now with law enforcement are repeats of the indictments against King George in the Declaration of Independence. Our nation was founded in a stand against the very treatement by state agents, and the disparity between that and the treatment of state agents.

        Disagreeable policies that are legal are not an issue, just that you don't like them.

        Law is not infallible and laws are often passed that are not in the interests of the people. We not only have laws that run contrary to the spirit of equality and equal justice for all, but we continuously are addressing laws that run contrary to the spirit in which they were written.

        And policies can often run within the confines of what is legal, but still run contrary to what best serves the people, much as speech can be legal while still being neither true nor appropriate nor a very nice thing to say.

        What I like doesn't matter, but part of the problem is that what some people like matters a lot more than it should, so we tend to have policies that put a lot of money and power into the hands of the few. Those aren't good policies.

        It further doesn't help that people in prison stay there when the laws they broke are overturned. I remember being taught that is not the way it's supposed to be, but we don't actually bother to release people because the state was wrong in prosecuting them in the first place.

        ...the courts have long since held that all of that is acceptable...

        The courts have a long history of bias and stupidity, often making rulings that lead to inequality and further abuse. Again, legal is not necessarily right or what best serves the people. These days, regulatory capture is so pandemic that what is legal often runs contrary to the interests of the people. Those ingrained in our legal system are going to serve our legal system. They're not going to serve the people.

        In fact, at this point countless opinions from the Department of Justice have demonstrated a regard of the people of the United States as the enemy. We should not only refuse them any additional teeth, but should pull the ones they already have until they realign their priorities.

        Once all of them are pulled, we might be able to start another institution that will actually serve the public.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2016 @ 12:17am

        Re: Re: Clear and Present Danger

        "Disagreeable policies that are legal are not an issue"

        Did you order the code red?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Padpaw (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 7:21pm

      Re: Clear and Present Danger

      same reason you have the CIA overthrowing democratic nations and installing pro us dictatorships in their place. Image is everything, the means can be ignored if you lie about how you did things.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 1:52pm

    "Now does your opinion change when the lens is on you?"

    As always the question to be asked is 'What would those that advocate for this kind of surveillance feel if it was turned against them?'

    In this instance for example how would Ross McNutt respond if someone were to dedicate a drone to constantly watch and follow him, so long as they assured him that currently the video resolution is low enough that it's only capable of distinguishing him from those around him?

    I can't help but think that he might find such an act just a wee bit invasive, despite apparently being perfectly fine with it for everyone else. Now were I wrong here, in that they would have no objections to such surveillance then I'd say sure, their opinion on the matter is worth consideration. However if they did object, as I imagine would be the case given how often it turns out to be so elsewhere, that just means that they'd be displaying a stunning level of hypocrisy, leaving their opinion on the subject worthless at best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 2:14pm

    So.... any aerial footage of the van carrying Freddie Gray? See if the police union has any objections to that being made public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 2:30pm

      Re:

      "Terribly sorry, but it seems the drone wasn't in that area at the time, the footage was corrupted, the footage was lost, and the footage is not subject to a FOIA request due to reason F.U., section 2.3 of the B.S.Y. amendment to the FOIA law."

      With all due respect(none at all),
      The Baltimore PD

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 3:58pm

      Re:

      Nope, this started in Jan of this year. We can however use it to track cop cars and vans in the future and prove that they took extra long and unusually energetic routes when people end up injured or dead in police custody. I'm sure we will be able to use this to keep an eye on our police as well and verify that they are in their assigned areas and not goofing off in some parking garage for half their shift while collecting overtime pay.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Darkhog, 24 Aug 2016 @ 2:39pm

    Well...

    The clue who Ross McNutt is lies within his name...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    annonymouse, 24 Aug 2016 @ 2:55pm

    Well with their overarching secrecy they must also have just as good data security right? Right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Zonker, 24 Aug 2016 @ 3:07pm

    It looks as though this pixel was bumping uglies with that pixel in the Baltimore PD lieutenant's house while the lieutenant was at work... watching aerial surveillance footage of the city.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    annonymouse, 24 Aug 2016 @ 3:32pm

    altitude

    At what height do these things fly and do they follow all the rules of the sky or are we going to see an unfortunate high altitude interaction with secret police equipment resulting in a few civilian deaths?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 4:26pm

      Re: altitude

      If these are military surplus, they are notorious for lost link with the controller. We saw several go down because we couldn't reestablish control. A few times they were jammed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 5:18pm

        Re: Re: altitude

        Well that's not horrifying to think about at all!

        Drone dropping from the sky due to a lost connection in a sparsely populated area is bad. Drone dropping from the sky in the middle of a city is much, much worse, so yeah, here's hoping these models are either taken out of service(ideally) or at least have better connections.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 6:09pm

        Re: Re: altitude

        They aren't drones. It's a guy in a Cessna.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 3:55pm

    In Which Universe?

    Such a system is not excused from the protections of the US Constitution just because it was donated by a private party. What is wrong with you people?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Skeeter, 24 Aug 2016 @ 4:22pm

    FOIA?

    Regardless of 'who gave the money', looks to me once it is 'given', that not only does the 'acquisition' enter into the public purvue as well as all funds and 'methods of acquisition', but the full capabilities of the device itself. Last I heard, state purchase are NOT covered by the 'national security act'. If they are, then you could negate the whole FOIA with National Security and be the Nazi you've always wanted to be, as a government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Vic, 24 Aug 2016 @ 5:18pm

    192-million megapixel - is that right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 24 Aug 2016 @ 7:17pm

    so constant video footage of their police officers is bad but constant video footage of everyone else is good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jack Ryan, 24 Aug 2016 @ 7:53pm

    Hardly Secret

    Really great secret when they brief the ACLU at an ACLU conference. Here is a link and you can see what they do and how they do it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYhjktrmPuA

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2016 @ 8:05pm

    Good to hear they get private funding, now they won't need to empty my wallet and call it drug money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2016 @ 7:38am

    Think about this people. When a guy robs a bank, and runs home before the police get there. They can rewind the video and watch where he goes. Or if your kid gets hit in a hit and run. They can track the car to the home. Someone gets shot, they can identify who the shooter was. This is exactly what crime stoppers NEEDS to protect the public. If they don't have a reason to watch you, then you have nothing to worry about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 25 Aug 2016 @ 8:03am

      So say there's this official...

      ...and he really wants to own all your shit and fuck your wife.

      He just needs to find something to pin on you, it doesn't even have to be a frame or a trumped charge, just enough to get probable cause.

      The SWAT guys come in, shoot up your house, take you to jail. Everything you own is seized via civil forfeiture. Chance of conviction (with no solid evidence) is 90%+, now you're in lock up.

      So he says to your wife, be my love slave and your hubby gets to stay in the swanky white-collar prisons. Refuse, and I'll make sure he's Bubba's plaything for a long, long time.

      If your wife doesn't cooperate, he can make you disappear into one of the secret infomax prisons, where you live under fluorescent lights 24/7 and the guard who walks up and down the hallway never talks to you. Ever.

      And this official, say a police chief, or a deputy mayor or even some civic-building middle office clerk, can totally do that. Has done it. There are more false convicts in US prisons than there are actual criminals. It's too bad that we can't separate the guys who were targeted from the guys with bad luck to be in the wrong place, from the guys who actually committed crimes. We have no functional justice system that actually determines guilt from innocence.

      Someone should write a story.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 26 Aug 2016 @ 12:30am

      Not far enough!

      Someone might slip past the cameras somehow, via a disguise or switching vehicles under an overhang, so you need something that can accurately track the people. As such members of the public* should be required to carry tracking devices on their bodies at all times so that any time a crime occurs you can know instantly who was where, and therefore drastically narrow down the suspects and/or track anyone who flees the scene of a crime.

      It goes without saying of course that removal of the tracking device, switching your assigned device with someone else, or blocking the signal in any way would be treated as a crime worse than any other on the books in order to ensure that people would rather face any other charge rather than the charge for removing the tracking device.

      Since this system would only ever be used against criminals, and would never be abused, the only people who would ever object to it are criminals, or those with criminal intent! As such they should be the first to be fitted with the tracking devices, because after all, 'If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide'!

      *Naturally law enforcement, politicians, and those with large enough personal wealth will be exempt from this requirement to avoid even the possibility of someone using the system to track their movements for nefarious purposes such as kidnapping, blackmail or stalking. Again, the system would never be abused for such purposes, the exemption will be purely as a completely redundant safety measure.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jaack65 (profile), 26 Aug 2016 @ 5:06pm

    US version of a Total Police State

    Does the 4th Amendment still matter to the public? The SCOTUS rulings ,non-rulings especially with a CRIPPLED court, have made most of the 4th amendment moot. Drones with hi-res. camera and cheap light high-powered computers plus facial recognition software makes everyone a target in our now police state. National security is thrown around so lightly to cover nearly every situation. Embarrass a politician, the FBI,local police, National Security is at stake, well anything can be covered by this term. PEOPLE must push back against this THEFT and PERVERSION of our Constitutional RIGHTS. The 9th amendment in the Bill of Rights should be invoked to protect the people over the state and federal authorities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 28 Aug 2016 @ 1:51pm

    The old "Frog in boiling water" process. Seems to work on Sheeple real good.

    I have to wonder if the people of Germany reacted the same way that the people of the USA are reacting today, as their police and government slide slowly into fascism.

    You know - sit around and debate whether or not its actually happening, while ignoring the fact that they've already lost their democracy and no longer have even minimal control of their government or its agents.

    I wonder if this is why fascism always works.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 28 Aug 2016 @ 6:04pm

      "I wonder if this is why fascism always works."

      Our framers seem to be aware that war against aliens and baby-step encroaches were hallmarks of the disintegration of rights. But democratic rule and nations of laws are fairly new to us in contrast to feudal states run by aristocrats.

      We may have to do this a few times before we get the hang of it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        GEMont (profile), 1 Sep 2016 @ 12:05pm

        Re: "I wonder if this is why fascism always works."

        "We may have to do this a few times before we get the hang of it."

        Extremely well said sir.

        I do keep fogetting that in the grand scheme of things, this particular era is utterly different than all others that preceded it and is indeed a mere tick or two on the clock of history.

        I suppose that if all periods of peace and fair treatment of populations on earth were added up, it might account for about 1/10th of 1% of human history, at most.

        C'est al vie eh.

        Sadly, it appears too that the movers and shaker of earth have decided that those familiar old times are worth bring back.

        ---

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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