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Baltimore Police Say Aerial Surveillance Is Not a 'Secret Spy Program'

The department has been using technology developed for Iraq war operations on the city since January, and failed to tell the public.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters

It’s no longer a secret that the Baltimore police department has been allowing an airplane to fly over the city taking in surveillance data from a camera with a lens wide enough to span a 32-mile area. Earlier this week, Bloomberg Businessweek exposed the surveillance project, which the police department is calling the Baltimore Community Support Program. It’s actually a private enterprise with the decidedly less-friendly moniker Persistent Surveillance Systems, founded by the former military engineer Ross McNutt, who originally developed the technology for war operations in Iraq.

From the Bloomberg report:

McNutt retired from the military in 2007 and modified the technology for commercial development, increasing the number of cameras in the assembly to 12 and making the apparatus lighter and cheaper. He began attending security trade shows to fish for clients. His first real customer approached him at a security expo in Miami. His name was José Reyes Ferriz, and he was the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, in northern Mexico. In 2009 a war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels had turned his border town into the most deadly city on earth.

For the next couple of years, Persistent Surveillance survived by providing services such as traffic-flow analysis for municipal planners, wildlife monitoring and border surveillance for federal agencies, and security monitoring for single events ranging from the Brickyard 400 Nascar race to Ohio State University football games. The company also did short-term projects in six countries, including in Central America and Africa, but the nature of that work is confidential, protected by nondisclosure agreements. The combination of those projects earned Persistent Surveillance about $3 million to $4 million a year in revenue, according to McNutt.

McNutt eventually began looking for police departments in high-crime cities to sell it to, which is how it landed in Baltimore. Two other cities, Compton and Dayton, Ohio, turned him down. But the police department in Baltimore, which suffered its highest homicide total ever last year, welcomed McNutt, and his surveillance plane began flying over the city in January of this year. The department just failed to alert the public about it.

McNutt explained in a press conference Wednesday with Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith that this is only a pilot program, and that it’s scheduled to expire in a few weeks. The plane has logged about 300 hours in the air since it was activated in January, and has helped collect aerial video information used for investigation briefs submitted to detectives investigating crimes like homicide and rape. It was also deployed to scan the crowds of protesters as verdicts were handed down in trials of the police involved in Freddie Gray’s death.

Smith insisted at the press conference that this is not a “secret spy program.” However, it’s debatable whether the project would have been revealed to the public if not for the Bloomberg article. The Baltimore police department declined Bloomberg an interview for that article, and the decision to adopt the program was made without the vetting of any city governing body. The project was not paid for with city funds, but rather with the financial assistance of the Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold.

Before deploying the project in Baltimore, McNutt consulted with the ACLU’s Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst on privacy and technology. Stanley has been writing about the risks of this kind of surveillance technology for the past few years. He has gone on record as being particularly concerned about the FBI using similar technology to fly over the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. Listening to McNutt Wednesday, it seemed some of Stanley’s concerns were confirmed.

“This a big deal,” wrote Stanley in a blog post Wednesday about the Baltimore program. “Make no mistake: This technology is a big leap toward an unknown surveillance future.”

He wrote that allowing the police this kind of surveillance power is dangerous:

… [It’s like] giving the government a virtual time machine, which allows them to go back and retroactively surveil any of us at any time. It is the technological equivalent of having a GPS attached to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our door. 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. Simply put, that is an enormous amount of power to give to a government agency. We Americans (as well as the residents of other countries) are going to need to decide whether we are willing to accept the potentially sweeping changes this could bring to our society.

At the press conference, Smith and McNutt explained that the footage captured from the plane is already being used in two cases involving shootings. The Bloomberg article details how McNutt’s team has also used it to track kids riding illegal off-road bikes in the city. Smith said the main goal was to hopefully use it to reduce homicides and violent crime in the city.

Of course, the Baltimore police department is itself being surveilled—by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found sweeping violations of citizens’ constitutional civil rights across the police force. The Justice Department made no mention of this surveillance program in its report, and it’s not clear if the federal agency is aware it exists. It’s not clear if Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is aware of it, either—she’s currently on vacation, and Smith would not say at the press conference whether she had been briefed on it. The plan was, however, legally vetted through the state’s attorney’s office. Which means that, while the public had no idea they were under surveillance, at least a few people in the criminal justice system did.

Meanwhile, the DOJ’s 164-page report on the Baltimore police department has given city residents plenty of reasons not to trust local law enforcement there. Withholding the fact that a plane has been recording their movements without their knowledge obviously won’t help restore confidence.

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