Bloomberg Businessweek reported late Tuesday that the Baltimore police have been subjecting that city to a vast and powerful aerial surveillance system since January, without telling, let alone asking, the public that they serve. This is a big deal.
This system, known as “wide-area surveillance” and run by an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, involves the deployment of megapixel cameras on a Cessna aircraft, which circles over a city for up to 10 hours at a time, continuously photographing a 30-square-mile area and giving police the ability to retroactively track any vehicle or pedestrian within that area. It is the ultimate Big Brother “eye in the sky.”
I have been warning against this technology since early 2013, and wrote about it again a year later after Persistent Surveillance president Ross McNutt gave me a presentation on it. Then, in 2015, we learned that Cessna aircraft were circling over Baltimore in the wake of protests following the police killing of Freddie Gray, and immediately feared that this kind of wide-area surveillance was involved. Further reporting revealed that these flights, which were also spotted over many other American communities, were being run by the FBI, which told the AP that its fleet was “not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.” At the time, we were relieved to hear that.
Now we learn that wide-area surveillance is being conducted over Baltimore. And 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 FBI’s Baltimore flights received, the Baltimore police did not see fit to ask the public’s permission to use this startling new technology on the city’s population. Instead, it arrogated unto itself in secret the decision to deploy this technology. It continues to be stunning that American police forces feel that they can use deeply radical and controversial surveillance systems, which raise the most profound questions about our society and its values, without telling the public that will be subject to these technologies—the public they are supposed to be serving.