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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  • icon
    hij (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 9:51am

    Better than D.A.R.E

    On the plus side, it sounds like it is more effective than the D.A.R.E. program.

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

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 9:58am

    Aerial Investigation Research Pilot Program

    …AIRPP? Sounds appropriate, since it’s pissing all over the Fourth Amendment.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 3:47pm

      Re:

      Ah, but it isn't... because the government hasn't actually been able to do anything useful with the data. It's being done by a private company, and there's nothing illegal about a private company taking pictures of people's back yards from above.

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

  • 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.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 10:29am

    Government surveillance by any other name...

    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.

    Sounds like the kind of excuse you'd get from a lawyer defending someone accused of stalking someone in court. 'No your honor my client was not violating the privacy of the plaintiff, as while they did set up cameras aimed at the plaintiff's windows they hadn't yet looked at the resulting footage, and as everyone knows it's only a violation of someone's privacy/rights if you look at the footage.'

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 11:45am

    Cell capture as well

    A previous version of the surveillance system had a mobile fake cell tower to get the data of all of the people with phones on them. If the current version has the same thing, they now know who was at the protests, shooting scenes, vandalism and other crimes. They can rewind and see where people came from to see which vehicles they arrived in and where they came from before they got in those cars. If they can show a pattern of violence and or destruction of property, the convictions should be a slam dunk. Other than the 1984 style surveillance state that allowed for all of this evidence to be collected in the first place.

    You are now a suspect of a crime that you might commit sometime in the future.

    I'm not sure how else this can be but an admission that they have failed to maintain safetly in this area and that local control should be rescinded.

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

  • icon
    JP the Recurring Zombie (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:18pm

    It's Bawlmer Living, Hon

    I live in a nicer part of Baltimore City but right in the flight path that the "flying leaf blower" and all of our police helicopters take from the county airport they are stored at to the city. Between the constant drone of the single plane all day long and the police helicopters all night long, one can go mad by the noise pollution and the biweekly helicopter spotlight shining thru the bedroom window at 3am.

    They're still trying to get two more planes up and operational for added "coverage". The thing is, once the financial assistance of this program runs out, it'll be scraped as there is no way that the city will have the funding to continue it. The only way I see this continuing is if they hide it in plain sight as a bond issue on the ballot. I feel that maybe 10% of Baltimore City voters actually read the bond funding statements on the ballot. I have yet to see a bond issue get voted down in 22 years of voting here.

    One arrest from the surveillance data? Ya, that's par for the course here in Charm City where our PD is understaffed by around 25% of the required amount of officers for a city our size.

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

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 1:13pm

    Life Imitating Art

    On the TV show "24" they had a citywide surveillance satellite system called "Backtrace". Even in fiction, it seemed like an incredibly wasteful program, in that it would capture huge amounts of aerial footage just for the small possibility that a person of interest could be tracked.

    And yet here we have metropolitan cities wanting to replicate it with aerial drones. I can only imagine what an expensive waste of money this is. Shut it down.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 5:02pm

    ... and please, please, stop emailing Charlie Stross about it. He heard about Gorgon Stare 10 years ago, some 5 years after he'd written a short story involving cameras and petrification. Maybe someone in the military was a fan?

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 11 Aug 2020 @ 7:12pm

    Is it sad that this is a better success rate than what we got when we gave up our rights to be 'safe' from terrorists?

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

  • identicon
    Joe, 12 Aug 2020 @ 12:52pm

    NOT Gorgon Stare

    This is not the Gorgon Stare system flown by the US Air Force....this is a very elementary version of that...if Gorgon Stare were flying...there would be 100-plus arrests!

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


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