No conspiracy to hide privately funded program in which cameras took continuous photographs since January, police spokesman claims
Baltimore police on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that city residents had been subject to aerial surveillance, after a Bloomberg Businessweek story revealed that airborne cameras had snapped continuous photos in cooperation with the police since January.
Police spokesman TJ Smith insisted that the privately funded agreement between Persistent Surveillance Systems and city police was not a secret surveillance program. Before Wednesday, not even the mayor, city council, and board of estimates had been told about the program.
There was no conspiracy not to disclose it, Smith said.
Many officials and activists thought otherwise. The office of the public defender issued a statement saying that the secrecy of the program has precluded any oversight of the technologys use and warned of abuses that are ripe from its use.
American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said it was stunning that American police forces feel that they can use deeply radical and controversial surveillance systems in a blogpost.
Persistent Surveillance Systems began working in Baltimore in January, as first reported by Bloomberg Businessweek. The Ohio-based company provides data gleaned from its aerial surveillance to police as they investigate crimes in the city.
It works, according to founder Ross McNutt, like Google Earth with Tivo: megapixel cameras on a Cessna aircraft continuously photograph the city.
The wide-area imagery used by the program allows the the department to film 32 square miles of the city in a fashion that allows investigators to move back and forth in time, following suspects. Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance, which owns and operates the technology, said that his company had provided the police with 102 investigation briefs but not all of those led to arrest.
The program, according to Smith, was in use for 100 hours between January and February and another 200 hours over the summer. The small plane will continue to surveil the city for a few more weeks, when the department will begin to evaluate whether to enter into a permanent agreement.
This effectively is a mobile CitiWatch camera, Smith said, referring to the system of nearly 700 manually operated surveillance cameras spread throughout the city. But we see a larger area than what we see with the CitiWatch camera, but what we lose is the clarity … This is so far in the sky where the person on the ground becomes unidentifiable at this point.
We have the near real-time ability to follow up on a situation after a 911 call is made, said Smith.
He provided the example of a February case in which an elderly brother and sister were shot in the area of Walbrook Junction.
The information that we gleaned from that data assisted our investigators in identifying that suspect, he said.
McNutt says that two supreme court cases in the 1980s legally justify the program.
The company says the imagery data, which is stored for 45 days unless it is part of investigation, can only be accessed by the companys analysts, who in turn provide information to detectives, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts.
Government surveillance expert Jake Laperruque said the surveillance currently practiced by Baltimore police is in unclear legal standing.
Its definitely something thats currently being litigated in a number of areas, said Laperruque, a privacy fellow at the Constitution Project thinktank. Theres a strong case to be made, based on what the supreme court has said in the past, that there is a constitutional right to be free from pervasive location tracking without court authorization.
He added that, absent answers from the Baltimore police about when and how the surveillance technology is used, there definitely is potential for serious abuse.
Whats to say that the Baltimore police couldnt zoom in on a protest, on a religious ceremony, on an abortion clinic, or just to track people in an arbitrary or improper manner?, he asked.
This is not the first time that McNutts company has contracted with domestic law enforcement, or even the first time the company has worked with Baltimore. McNutt told the Baltimore Sun last year that his company has previously operated in the city for a brief period in 2008. McNutts company also surveilled Compton, California, for the Los Angeles County sheriffs department and Dayton, Ohio, in previous trial programs.
Like the Baltimore program, the trial in Compton was launched with no disclosure by authorities.
Stanley, of the ACLU, nodded to all this history and his organizations own requests for more information on these programs.
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 FBIs Baltimore flights received, the Baltimore police did not see fit to ask the publics permission to use this startling new technology on the citys population, he said.