Secret Cameras Are Recording Baltimore’s Every Move — From the Sky
Since the start of 2016, the Baltimore Police Department has used a privately funded and operated surveillance company to investigate crimes via a camera-equipped airplane — and it didn’t inform the public, reports Bloomberg.
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton, Ohio, provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made. …
The system was built around an assembly of four to six commercially available industrial imaging cameras, synchronized and positioned at different angles, then attached to the bottom of a plane. As the plane flew, computers stabilized the images from the cameras, stitched them together and transmitted them to the ground at a rate of one per second. This produced a searchable, constantly updating photographic map that was stored on hard drives. [PSS founder Ross McNutt’s] elevator pitch was irresistible: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”
The images weren’t perfect. Analysts on the ground could see individual cars moving through the streets, but they couldn’t tell what make or model they might be. Pedestrians were just pixelated dots; you couldn’t distinguish a man from a woman, or an Iraqi civilian from an American soldier. Individual recognition, however, wasn’t the point; any dot could be followed backward or forward in time, which opened up all sorts of investigative possibilities.
Who is funding the operation?
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.
In an attempt to foil a probable challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union on privacy grounds, McNutt visited the group’s headquarters in Washington and made his case to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst and privacy expert.
The aerial images couldn’t identify specific people, because the target resolution would be limited to one pixel per person. The analysts zoomed in on specific areas only in response to specific crimes reported to the police. To further ensure that his employees weren’t spying on random people or addresses, everything they did was logged and saved—every keystroke and every address they zoomed in to for a closer look. Vehicles would be tracked only over public roads in areas where people have no expectation of privacy. …
Stanley heard McNutt out and thanked him for taking the initiative to seek the ACLU’s feedback. But McNutt’s presentation shocked him to the core. As he listened to his visitor describe the type of surveillance the company was capable of doing, Stanley felt as if he were witnessing America’s privacy-vs.-security debate move into uncharted territory.
“My reaction was ‘OK, this is it,’?” Stanley recalls. “I said to myself, ‘This is where the rubber hits the road. The technology has finally arrived, and Big Brother, which everyone has always talked about, is finally here.’?”
Baltimore has not signed a long-term contract with PSS. The company has worked in Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; Indianapolis; and Charlotte, N.C.; and in the Mexican cities of Torreon and Nogales.
Continue reading and watch a video report on the operation here.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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