The Sneaky Program to Spy on Baltimore From Above

Hundreds of thousands were watched from above at the behest of the local police department. And the program operated for months in secret.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

Ask the residents of any major American city to vote on a program of total aerial surveillance––where the cops would record footage of everything that happened within municipal borders, then store the high-resolution video on hard drives, so that they could effectively go back in time, tracing the outdoor movements of any individual––and the proposal would, at the very least, trigger furious debate.

But what if the police didn’t ask permission? What if they began recording their city’s residents from above without even bothering to inform their elected overseers?

That is what the police in Baltimore have just done.

It is illegal, in Maryland, to record a phone call without informing the person on the other end. Yet Baltimore police have been using an eye in the sky to surveil the whole city for months on end, recording hi-resolution footage and storing it on hard drives so that the movements of residents can be accessed at any time in the future.

They began doing this in secret, with the help of a private company, launching the dystopian collaboration without even consulting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

“The revelation that a private company has been conducting secret aerial surveillance on behalf of the police department caused confusion, concern and outrage Wednesday among elected officials,” The Baltimore Sun reported. “Some demanded an immediate stop to the program pending a full, public accounting of its capabilities and its use in the city, including in the prosecution of criminal defendants... Others did not fault the program but said it should have been disclosed.”

The program was revealed by an article in Bloomberg that described its proprietary technology. “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,” the story notes. “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.”

The product pitch: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”

Back in 2014, I wrote about Ross McNutt, the man who owns the technology, and his company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, after they performed a test  over Compton, California, another municipality where residents weren’t told that a private corporation would record their every move at the behest of local law enforcement. Back then, Sgt. Douglas Iketani of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged that his agency hid the initiative to avoid community opposition. “This system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” he said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so to mitigate those kinds of complaints we basically kept it pretty hush hush.”

Reflecting on that willful disregard for democratic legitimacy, and the similarly presumptuous behavior of police officials in Baltimore––who were already on notice that there would be objections to shenanigans of this sort––it seems to me that the outrage so far offered by critics doesn’t go far enough. The right response, I think, is the termination of police leadership in any city that undertakes an initiative of this sort without at least alerting all of the relevant elected city officials.

Baltimore cops were able to circumvent the city’s elected leadership in part by relying on private funding. The surveillance flights over the city were bankrolled by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold. “John is a former Enron trader whose hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, made billions before he retired,” Bloomberg reported. “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.”

That is worth dwelling on.

Technology has reached a point where billionaires can simply bankroll aerial surveillance that significantly and secretly compromises the privacy of hundreds of thousands.

And Baltimore police officials are dissembling about what they’ve done even now that the program has been made public. “This technology is about public safety,” a police department spokesman declared. “This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city.” In fact, those criminals are caught precisely because the city is engaged in surveillance. By violating everyone’s privacy they can track a few people who’ve committed crimes.

“The only people who should be concerned in the city of Baltimore are criminals," the police spokesperson continued, betraying ignorance of the dangers technology like this poses. One wonders if there are safeguards in place to prevent Baltimore police officers with access to the footage from tracking peaceful protesters after they leave an assembly; or surveilling a city council candidate running on a police reform platform; or stalking an ex-wife or a romantic interest.

Who has access to the footage? Can the particular parts of the data they access be audited after the fact? How long will the data be retained? Did this project violate anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights? These are just the most obvious questions that are raised. It is not reassuring that the cops are saying, nothing to worry about here, rather than, “here are the specific abuses that we foresaw as inevitable but for safeguards––and here are the safeguards that we put in place to avert those abuses.”

This portentous story isn’t getting enough attention.

There is nothing like philosophical consensus in this country. But I submit that huge majorities, Republican and Democrat alike, would at least agree on this proposition: if a police department decides that it wants to surveil an entire city of Americans, recording aerial footage of everything that happens within municipal borders, then store the high-resolution video so that they can effectively go back in time, tracing the outdoor movements of any individual that they settle upon––if a police department wants to do that, they should have to secure the consent of the governed. And if a billionaire wants to do that on his own accord he or she should not be allowed.

If proceeding in secret has no consequences for police agencies or the burgeoning private surveillance industry, we’re all likely to suffer increasingly intrusive privacy violations as technology advances. Who is to say that this isn’t already happening, in your city, given the law enforcement community’s track record? In reality, unlike in 1984, Big Brother may watch for awhile without revealing that there is a Big Brother.