Baltimore Police Can't Explain Why Their All-Seeing Spy Planes Were Kept Secret

Baltimore has had “Google Earth With TiVo capability” since January, but avoided public scrutiny thanks to a private donation from two Texas billionaires.

|
Aug 25 2016, 1:30pm

Photo: markus53/Pixabay

Police officials in Baltimore are trying to deflect controversy over an aerial mass-surveillance program exposed earlier this week, in which a private company quietly keeps watch over a 32-mile radius of the city by flying planes overhead for as many as 10 hours a day.

The pilot program, which according to Bloomberg Businessweek has been run by the Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance Systems since January, allows Baltimore police to do retroactive and real-time aerial tracking of people and vehicles using technology adapted from the Iraq war, which its creator describes as "Google Earth with TiVo capability."

During a press conference on Wednesday, Baltimore Police Department spokesperson TJ Smith attempted to dismiss privacy concerns about the BPD's eye in the sky, going as far as refusing to call the program "secret."

"Secrecy is not the right word because it's not a secret spy program … this is something that we're looking into," Smith said during the press conference, which was streamed on Periscope and Facebook Live.

Smith justified the program by alluding to two cases from the 1980s, in which the Supreme Court ruled that police don't need a warrant to observe a suspect from above using helicopters. But those cases notably involved surveillance of a single person, not half an entire city of 621,000 people.

Smith was also unable to explain why the pilot program circumvented the procurement process, which usually allows the public to know what new technologies are being sought through the posting of contract solicitations. The program was funded through a $120,000 contribution from Laura and John Arnold, two Texas billionaires who have also invested in the controversial the "risk assessment" software used in some states to algorithmically determine whether criminal defendants should be granted bail.

When asked at the press conference who else knew about the program if it wasn't a secret, Smith replied "I can't answer that," referring the reporter to the mayor's office.

Smith was joined by Persistent Surveillance Systems CEO Ross McNutt, who attempted to quell privacy concerns by claiming that his company only uses the system to zoom in on specific events after they've been identified by the police. He also pointed out that the cameras—which watch over and record an area of 32 square miles—don't have enough resolution to identify individuals.

But those cameras will inevitably improve, seeing as how McNutt's company already faces competition from rivals likeLogos Technologies, which also offers aerial surveillance services using similar wide-area image tracking technology. And there's plenty of reasons why the public would distrust a system that gives police a digitally recorded god's-eye view of an entire city. In Baltimore, the Department of Justice recently released a scathing report concluding that the Baltimore Police Department "engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law," including unlawful stops and the disproportionate targeting of minorities.

Currently, Persistent Surveillance Systems' pilot program only has "a few weeks" of operation remaining in its total 300 hours of flight time, says Smith. After that, the department will assess whether it wants to move forward with a full roll-out, but judging by the BPD's spokesperson, it seems they're already convinced.

"I do not wanna talk to another mother who's crying because her son was killed on these streets and we don't know who did it," said Smith.