Baltimore cops using private company's aerial cameras to conduct secret surveillance

A Cessna equipped with cameras is flying over Baltimore to conduct unblinking surveillance likened to 'Google Earth with TiVo' capabilities.

aerial view of baltimore
Credit: Fletcher6

Right now, a Cessna plane outfitted with multiple cameras is flying over Baltimore to conduct wide-area surveillance. Those four to six cameras can capture an area of about 30 square miles. The real-time images are stitched together and continuously transmitted at a rate of one per second to analysts on the ground.

The public has no clue the Cessna is flying and filming overhead, sometimes for 10 hours a day, or that the Baltimore Police Department has been tapping into that surveillance to fight crime. It’s being conducted by a private company, Persistent Surveillance Systems; the surveillance has not been publicly disclosed and is being funded by a private donor.

The captured images are stored on hard drives so they can be pulled up and reviewed at a later date if needed. According to Bloomberg, which has an interesting and in-depth report, Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, pitches the surveillance as: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”

Although the captured images are not sharply defined, and instead supposedly resemble blurry blobs, it is good enough to be used as a forensics tool.

If the image quality is really that bad, then you might wonder how the surveillance works. After Radiolab watched one analyst work last year, they explained on a podcast how the police say a crime happened in a certain area and the analyst pulls up the location, zooms in, clicks frame-by-frame backward until about five minutes before the crime. The analyst would tag a suspect by placing an “orange circle over the pixelated shape” and “then click, click, click, he moves forward, forward, forward.”

Another analyst told Bloomberg that is was like “playing a video game.” He would place his cursor over a vehicle to track it frame-by-frame. The job was pitched to him as something a gamer might enjoy.

Once a suspect has been identified by the overhead surveillance footage, an analyst tracks the person back to a house or to a car – somewhere for police to apprehend the suspect. The footage reportedly cannot make out features of the pixelated person, but if that suspect walks past a street-level surveillance camera, then the police can pull that up to obtain a clear image of the person.

McNutt reportedly would rather have transparency about the eye-in-the-sky surveillance that he can provide. He believes if people know they are being watched, then it would curb crime.

At one point, McNutt approached the ACLU in an attempt to head off privacy concerns by explaining the resolution was “limited to one pixel per person.” Every keystroke and zoomed-in address is logged. He even cited a Supreme Court case which held it was legal for police to fly over a person’s property and see pot growing inside the fence.

But Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst and privacy expert, did not agree that the surveillance was fine. He was “shocked to the core” after McNutt’s presentation and said he “felt as if he were witnessing America’s privacy-vs.-security debate move into uncharted territory.”

Stanley told Bloomberg:

“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.’”

As for the Supreme Court case McNutt cited, a passing plane seeing something inside a fence is one thing, but Stanley asked, is “it reasonable to argue that anyone could follow a person’s movements across a city for hours at a time?”

McNutt seems exasperated when people object to the unblinking eye of surveillance for privacy reasons. Baltimore is not his first gig. When Dayton, Ohio, was contemplating his surveillance system, McNutt told ABC, “The only reason we know you aren’t a bush is you tend to walk along the sidewalk. And the only reason we know you aren’t a dog is you tend to get into a car and drive.”

Yet Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl wanted Dayton citizens to visit the operation center to see what the tech could do. He told the Washington Post, “I want them to be worried that we’re watching. I want them to be worried that they never know when we’re overhead.”

Two years ago, before McNutt increased the capabilities of Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Center for Investigative Reporting looked into it and then warned that “Hollywood-style surveillance technology” was inching closer to reality.

As cameras improve, McNutt claims to be interested in seeing more crime by looking at a wider area as opposed to sharpening the surveillance focus to see more than pixelated people.

Stanley told The Post, “If you turn your country into a totalitarian surveillance state, there’s always some wrongdoing you can prevent. The balance struck in our Constitution tilts toward liberty, and I think we should keep that value.”

Amen to that!

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