Baltimore's Aerial Surveillance Program Has Logged 700 Flight Hours, One (1) Arrest

from the if-you're-not-going-to-get-much-band,-might-as-well-use-someone-else's-b dept

The Baltimore PD's eye in the sky program continues. First (inadvertently) introduced to the public in 2016, the camera/Cessna system, made by a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, flew above the city capturing up to 32-square miles of human and vehicle movements using a 192-million-megapixel camera.

The only upside to the residents of Baltimore not being informed of this development is that they weren't spending their money on it. It was completely funded by a private donor, Arnold Ventures, LLC. The system, known as "Gorgon Stare" when deployed in war zones by the military, is referred to by the city and PD by the friendlier, if clunkier, name "Aerial Investigation Research Pilot Program."

The second run of this program began earlier this year. The latest take on persistent aerial surveillance survived an early legal challenge by the ACLU. A federal court judge said the system did not violate anyone's Fourth Amendment rights, mainly because of its technical limitations. The system is far from "persistent." The planes -- three of them -- are airborne around 11 hours a day at most and they're almost completely useless at night. They're also mostly useless during bad weather and, in especially inclement weather, unable to get up off the ground at all.

So, it may be Constitutional and it may have been run past the public the second time around, but is it actually useful? That's something no one seems to know. The initial run in 2016 didn't add much to the Baltimore law enforcement knowledge base, mainly because it involved Baltimore cops and their apparently shoddy work practices.

[P]oor record-keeping by the police department apparently hindered any real study of the 2016 surveillance effort. According to reporting by the Baltimore Sun two years later, the best anyone call tell is that aerial footage may, or may not have, played a role in closing one of the roughly 100 murder cases during the 2016 flights.

There's no telling what this deployment will do for crime stats. The flights are ongoing but very little of what's captured appears to be useful to investigators.

After more than 700 hours aloft over the city, just one arrest has been made with aid from the program’s imagery data, according to BPD.

Meanwhile, the city continues to see its murder rate climb. Of course, the persistent surveillance can't actually prevent crime. It can only help investigators track suspects as they move away from crime scenes. The planes spend most of the time flying over areas the BPD's other software tells them to fly.

Overall, the police department says, flights are scheduled over areas where BPD data indicates most homicides occur, and the images it records are used after a crime has been committed and an initial investigation determines aerial footage might be helpful.

The planes are also flying over ongoing George Floyd-related protests and, in some cases, wandering outside of the city itself to fly over nearby suburbs. While police officials have stressed they're not surveilling First Amendment activity, they're still recording it, even if they never plan to use that footage. All footage collected remains in the possession of Persistent Surveillance Systems. It turns over images the BPD requests and destroys everything not needed 45 days after it's recorded. It's also forbidden to sell the footage. But it is able to do whatever it wants with these images while they remain in the company's possession during that 45-day time frame.

If this is all residents are getting from this program, it's a good thing a philanthropist from Texas is paying for it. Persistent Surveillance Systems is trying to create a market for its goods, but its test runs with the Baltimore PD haven't been a ringing endorsement of their tech. The Police Commissioner, Michael Harrison, doesn't exactly sound enthused about what he's seen so far.

Harrison… admits the program likely is not worth taxpayers funding the hefty price tag, potentially as high as $8 million annually based on the pilot, after the privately-funded pilot program runs out. “It probably would not be supported publicly, because of the dollar amount and its outcomes thus far.”

Meanwhile, the spy planes keep circling Baltimore. The experiment -- one using Baltimore residents as test subjects -- continues.

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Filed Under: baltimore, cost benefit, police, surveillance

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 10:21am

    This is a common modern problem of 'if we collect and analyse the data we will....". It does not work well for advertising, and it does nor work well for police work either. Building the haystack is easy, finding the needles afterwards is almost impossible.

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