Baltimore Police Secretly Running Aerial Mass-Surveillance Eye in the Sky

Bloomberg Businessweek reported late Tuesday that the Baltimore police have been subjecting that city to a vast and powerful aerial surveillance system since January, without telling, let alone asking, the public that they serve. This is a big deal.

This system, known as “wide-area surveillance” and run by an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, involves the deployment of megapixel cameras on a Cessna aircraft, which circles over a city for up to 10 hours at a time, continuously photographing a 30-square-mile area and giving police the ability to retroactively track any vehicle or pedestrian within that area. It is the ultimate Big Brother “eye in the sky.”

I have been warning against this technology since early 2013, and wrote about it again a year later after Persistent Surveillance president Ross McNutt gave me a presentation on it. Then, in 2015, we learned that Cessna aircraft were circling over Baltimore in the wake of protests following the police killing of Freddie Gray, and immediately feared that this kind of wide-area surveillance was involved. Further reporting revealed that these flights, which were also spotted over many other American communities, were being run by the FBI, which told the AP that its fleet was “not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.” At the time, we were relieved to hear that.

Now we learn that wide-area surveillance is being conducted over Baltimore. And despite all the public questioning and statements of concern by us and others, and our freedom-of-information requests, and the extensive press coverage the FBI’s Baltimore flights received, the Baltimore police did not see fit to ask the public's permission to use this startling new technology on the city’s population. Instead, it arrogated unto itself in secret the decision to deploy this technology. It continues to be stunning that American police forces feel that they can use deeply radical and controversial surveillance systems, which raise the most profound questions about our society and its values, without telling the public that will be subject to these technologies—the public they are supposed to be serving.

In fact, the Baltimore police went out of their way to avoid telling the public what they were doing. As Businessweek reports, they refused to comment on the program for the story, and the city has not even acknowledged that it exists. When photos from the system led the police to believe that a man was involved in a high-profile shooting, the police didn’t answer questions from the community about why they suspected the man in question. (To give credit where credit is due, McNutt, unlike the police and unlike other surveillance companies such as the makers of Stingray cell phone tracking equipment, was forthcoming about his company and technology with Businessweek, as he was with me, and said that he believes the technology should be used in a transparent, publicly acknowledged manner.)

When the police in Dayton, Ohio presented a proposal to use persistent aerial surveillance, community members strenuously objected, and the city's political leaders dropped their attempt. But because of the secrecy in Baltimore, residents there never had that chance.

It is all the worse given the Department of Justice’s recent scathing report of rampant, long-running and pervasive racial bias in the Baltimore Police Department and an almost total lack of accountability for wrongdoing.

The Baltimore program, Businessweek reports, has been funded by a private Texas philanthropist. As we so often see with surveillance technologies, from license scanners to Stingrays to drones, this outside grant functioned to short-circuit democracy, because it meant the police did not need to bring a funding request to the city council or other elected officials, who might have brought up the significant values questions that this technology raises, and asked what checks and balances were in place to govern such a powerful surveillance system.

Several other points about this technology from the article:

  • One of Ross McNutt’s arguments for why this system is not overly intrusive is that the photographic resolution is very low. He emphasized to me that the system “can’t tell who a person is,” and as Businessweek describes, a pedestrian surveillance subject appeared as “little more than a faint, grainy dot with no identifying characteristics.” Analysts also can’t tell the make or model of the cars they can follow around a city. However, Businessweek also makes clear that this is a hollow argument. In several instances described in the story, police were able to match an aerial “pixelated dot” pedestrian to one of the more than 700 street-level police cameras installed around Baltimore, and obtain clear ground-based photographs of a subject. Surveillance systems never stand in isolation; there are always synergies at work. And as the article also notes, the “pixelated dots” can be followed forward and backward in time as they enter and exit homes and other buildings, and even without any other technology, that simple fact can be used to identify people. Indeed, the entire purpose of the system is to identify particular individuals.
     
  • McNutt assured me in 2013, “We only do major crimes; it's all we have time for.” But Businessweek describes a Persistent Surveillance analyst working (“for practice”) on a case involving the “illegal dumping of wood,” and how the system is used for other, less-than-major crimes, such as the driving of illegal off-road motorcycles on city streets. At one point Businessweek describes McNutt, eager to show how his technology can deal with serious crimes, exclaiming, “I’m tired of these little hit-and-runs.” Furthermore, the article portrays McNutt as using his system to “monitor[] the city’s reaction to the Goodson verdict,” in which an officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray was acquitted. Such a mission not only goes far beyond the serious-crime scope that McNutt describes in his presentations, it touches on the sensitive area of citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to protest. Later in the article, one of McNutt’s employees is described talking about being alert for the possibility of disruptions by Black Lives Matter activists. All of which is a major reminder of what Americans can expect if they swallow this technology: it will likely undergo mission creep and expand across numerous dimensions once deployed.
     
  • The operation of this system as observed by Businessweek is quite labor-intensive, from the operation of the plane to the somewhat laborious manual analysis of imagery. Yet we can expect that eventually the Cessna will be replaced by a far cheaper drone, the attached cameras will become even more powerful, and the analysis will be automated by ever-smarter AIs. (Those AIs might even go from responding to police reports of crime to pro-actively watching the movements of everyone in an attempt to detect “suspicious” activity such as aimless movements.) All of which will mean the technology becomes cheaper, more widespread, used for an ever-widening set of purposes (bank robbers today, jaywalkers tomorrow).
     
  • Businessweek details how this technology is a direct import into American cities from the overseas battlefields of the last 15 years: it is a domestic adaptation of a technology that McNutt first developed for the Pentagon to use in Iraq. This is an all-too-typical pattern when it comes to surveillance technologies.
     
  • It’s unclear what the retention period or policy is for the imagery captured by this system. The article mentions that analysts can review footage “weeks” after it’s captured, but is no more specific than that. In my talk with him, McNutt indicated that he would leave such policy questions up to his individual police department clients.
     
  • People sometimes ask how this technology differs from ground-based cameras. Baltimore, like some other cities, has a lot of ground based cameras, but those cameras do not cover every square inch of the city, and their feeds are not stitched together with an artificial intelligence agent that is capable of using them in a coordinated fashion to follow individuals around anywhere within a 30-square-mile area. Make no mistake: this technology is a big leap toward an unknown surveillance future.

McNutt describes this technology as “Google Earth with Tivo.” But another description might be giving the government a virtual time machine, which allows them to go back and retroactively surveill 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.

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Anonymous

2016 or 1984?

D.S.

Or, in honor of Gloria Naylor's brave novel about surveillance and harassment from intelligence agency operatives, 1996.

Diane Barritt

The Norfolk Police Division in Norfolk, Nebraska has been ruling our town with tyranny. They are tapping our phones, getting into our vehicles and garages and sabotaging our relationships with our churches and everywhere else for that matter. They need warrants to do these things and ignore our laws. I am talking about the general public and not necessarily the criminal part of law enforcement. They are manipulating the mail personnel, business owners, out of town and out of state law enforcement agencies, eating establishments, etc. They are guilty of on going property damages. I have two years of documentation of these activities, videos and other supporting data. I am 73 years old and have limited resources but it is time to get this news out. They are trying to control gossip on everything. It started with our health facility, Faith Regional Health Services. I have suffered personal injuries due to the constant interferences they employ. My face is scarred and the story is long. In my case, they are constantly harassing me, my neighbors (who are elderly or handicapped), friends, family members, etc. There are times they did help in some instances but 90% of the time they are the cause of unrest. The FBI was contacted several months ago and they investigated. The problem here is that no one talks to the victims. No conversation. If I need to say something, I send a text to my daughter, Deneen, in Omaha. Disgruntled parties in Norfolk had someone enter my apartment and take a recently bought shirt. I filed a report and the uniformed officers investigated. They will not give me a copy of the report because it is the fault of the police bothering these people which make them want to do something to me or my car. We have a Gestapo in our town. This unit consists of undercover plainsclothes police men and women who coerce the community to carry out threatening and intimidating techniques mostly using colors to convey their messages of warnings. Red for Stop. Orange for Great Caution. Yellow for Caution. Pink for me-since I used to wear pink shoes all the time, black for me-since I usually wear black slacks, blue for police, white vehicles-my car is white, turquoise, purple, on and on. Talk about confusing! The parking lots have people stationed with threatening colored clothes to be used at the drop of a hat for an individual(s). Most frequently used stores like the Plaza and grocery stores you can find the Gestapo coercing customers on the spot depending what colored clothes they are wearing. In regard to me, the police do not want me to tell anyone about the dark side of health care that I experienced. There is no peace. They antagonize my elderly neighbor who doesn't know what to do but blame me because two of her family members work for law enforcement. We live with pranks 24-7. We are not criminals. My story needs to get out. Maybe I can be lucky to find a lawyer to take my case pro bono one of these days. They have taken my free channels #44-1, 44-2, and 44-3 off the air since I noticed it on August 12th. Today they took off my free channels 14-1, 14-2, 14-3. There is a story to that. Our police chief is Bill Mizner. The Madison County Attorney, Joseph Smith, at the Madison County Courthouse just recently said to me - "Are they picking on you?". I made a visit to see one of his employees concerning abuse to obtain some information and he kept interrupting us. You can see how everyone at the Madison County Courthouse is caught up with the politics in Norfolk when it comes to law enforcement. I don't care what they have to do to criminals, druggies, or mentally ill people because I am not privy to their situations. I am complaining about how the general public is being treated and laws are being broken. I have begun to talk and it is only the beginning.

CVWaller

"They are manipulating the mail personnel, ..."
If you have actual evidence of this occurring the USPS Inspection Service would almost certainly be very interested in reviewing it.

Anonymous

I'm sorry sir, but you clearly have some severe mental health issues, and should probably check into an elder mental healthcare facility.

Joshua Moore

I am diagnosed mentally disabled, and I can tell you that you have to actively resist being drugged to a drool, because the default for natural and uncriminal behavior is a pretty hefty pill cocktail. Try getting out of a wrong diagnosis. With their modern technology, they can't detect oxymoronic diagnoses, or choose to do nothing about it.

Anonymous

Now we are on to you. We will take away more of your free channels. And then we will coerce your neighborhood into wearing red sweaters on Friday. Be prepared for more pranks 24/7. Like a bag of feces on fire.

Anonymous

I also live in Nebraska (Lincoln), and have heard about what's going on in Norfolk. You're not crazy.

Malleus Maleficarum

"I don't care what they have to do to criminals, druggies, or mentally ill people because I am not privy to their situations."

How can you complain? You only care when you're on the receiving end! Maybe YOU are a "criminal, druggie, or mentally ill." Maybe what's being done to you is legitimate? I'm not privy to your situation, so why should I care? Ponder that, if you dare.

Beyond that, reports like yours are becoming quite common across the US. They indicate a widespread adoption of 'Zersetzung' tactics by US police agencies, just like the Stasi used to control the East German citizenry. In time, there will be no doubt that the US is a police state. Will there be enough time remaining to actually fight back?

Anonymous

I'm from Norfolk and lived there for 18 years. Sorry but you're batshit crazy. The police have better things to do than prank you and steal your cable and wear colored clothes to make you scared. Like, say, stop all the meth labs that I think you've been visiting based on how crazy your comment sounds.

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