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Report on Secret Baltimore Aerial Surveillance Concludes 'We Should Do This Again Sometime'

Maybe now with actual transparency.

When it comes to classic dystopian surveillance societies, there's nowhere quite like Baltimore. There are—or were—the JLENS cruise missile-spotting blimps hanging out over the northeastern reaches of the city, there are the ubiquitous blue light crime cameras mounted above street corners in "bad" parts of town, and, for several weeks in 2016, there were high-flying aircraft circling above Baltimore gathering bulk footage of, well, absolutely everything.


This last thing, the slow circling of all-seeing Cessna aircraft, gets dystopian bonus points for having been conducted in secret. It was a pilot program initiated by the Baltimore Police Department in concert with Ohio-based contractor Persistent Surveillance Systems and kept secret not only from the Baltimore citizenry but from the mayor and city council as well. Baltimore's top cops basically told no one about the program, and then, when pressed, explained that it hadn't really been a secret at all and was merely an extension of the aforementioned CitiWatch blue light camera network. (Which is a pretty silly thing to say given that part of the whole point of the blue light cameras is visibility and, thus, deterrence, but I digress.)

The DC-based Police Foundation—"advancing policing through innovation and science"—has a new report out about the Baltimore surveillance program, which was known officially as the "Baltimore Community Support Program" (BCSP). While noting that there's really no hard data on the BCSP, the Foundation gives the program a weak thumbs up and offers a kind of wan defense of the program's secretiveness. (The secretiveness, the report argues, was merely a "bureaucratic misunderstanding" and kind of just an illusion given the relative clarity of the CityWatch surveillance program.)

Here's the gist of Foundation's findings: "From its limited review, the Police Foundation has concluded that persistent surveillance has the potential for increasing the clearance of crimes and reducing the cost of criminal investigations. Anecdotal information from BPD officers who have used BCSP data to investigate crimes reported that the BCSP was a helpful crime-fighting tool that saved them considerable investigative time. Furthermore, this is suggestive that trust and confidence in the police could also be elevated through this type of program—as along as adequate public understanding and support is present before the technology."


Ultimately, the Police Foundation concludes that we should more rigorously evaluate programs like BCSP before deploying them on a mass scale. Which points back to the apparent lack of rigor employed by Baltimore's cops in running a surveillance system that's pretty clearly not normal and is representative of a gross escalation in surveillance. It's also another way of saying let's do this again.

While Baltimore cops and Persistent Surveillance argue that the images collected via the BCSP don't offer sufficient resolution to identify individual citizens—offering instead broad movements of groups or vehicles that might be correlated to ground-level camera footage—the ACLU isn't buying it. When the program first became public last August, ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley noted that what might look like a pixelated dot from above can still be identified by pulling that aforementioned ground-level footage, and, besides, you can learn a whole lot about a pixelated dot by watching its comings and goings.

"'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," Stanley wrote. "Indeed, the entire purpose of the system is to identify particular individuals."

In comments to the Baltimore Sun last week, David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, offered, "What's glaringly omitted is any recognition about the privacy impact and societal impact of giving the government the power of knowing where everyone goes every time they leave their house, because that's what this means."

"If the only lens you look at is, 'Can this be useful?' then I think you are entirely missing the point," Rocah said.

What makes BCSP even more ominous is how the Baltimore cops paid for it. Part of the reason city leaders could be cut out of the loop on the program is that city money didn't pay for it. Instead, $360,000 in funding came from the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the endeavour of Enron trader and hedge fund manager-turned-philanthropist John Arnold.

Arnold's less evil than his resume might indicate, but the sketchiness is not so much in the money's source than it is in the fact that collecting outside money allowed Baltimore's cops to do an end run around public scrutiny. One has to wonder how different the discussion would be about the program's future if said cops—now under a federal consent decree to "increase transparency, public oversight, [and] accountability"—had just been upfront about a scheme that is so clearly outside the norm.