A journalist's story exposing a secret city-wide aerial surveillance program in Baltimore drew a strong response, with the city's lawmakers, civil rights advocates and regular people expressing shock and confusion at the existence of the previously-undisclosed program.
Bloomberg's Monte Reel pulled back the curtain on the program with an exhaustive Aug. 23 story detailing the technology, the way it's used in Baltimore, and its origins as a military surveillance project.
Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), a Dayton, Ohio-based company, has been watching a 32-mile area of Baltimore from the sky since January. The surveillance technology stitches together images from dozens of cameras mounted beneath a Cessna and relays them to a team of technicians on the ground, who work with police to track people accused of crimes, according to Reel's story.
PSS technology works like the hood-mounted cameras of an automated license plate reader -- the footage is archived, and in addition to the live stream, detectives working cases can "rewind" to footage days or weeks in the past to track the movements of people they suspect of committing crimes like assault, burglary and murder.
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Police also cross-reference those feeds with images from Baltimore's extensive CCTV camera network on the ground, providing them with a comprehensive view of everything happening on the city's streets.
For example, detectives working an armed robbery at a store can track every person who left the store during a certain time period, "following" them as they walk up the street, drive home, or head to work. Then the detectives cross-reference those stops with other databases -- for example, if one person who left a store after a robbery stops at a known parolee's house, then stops at a stash house for a Baltimore gang, police have new leads that could help them find the robber.
But using the technology also means police are tracking innocent people and staying with them through the process of elimination.
Judging by the reactions of Baltimore's politicians, they were just as surprised as privacy and civil rights advocates after reading the Bloomberg story about the surveillance system in their own backyard. Much of the criticism leveled at the Baltimore Police Department and PSS involved anger that the program was never disclosed publicly and never debated before police began spying on their own citizens.
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One exception is Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who admitted she knew about the program when questioned by the Baltimore Sun. Rawlings-Blake claimed she did not know about the program when it was initially launched and only "recently" became aware of it.
“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,” Jay Stanley of the ACLU wrote.
Baltimore's chief public defender, Paul DeWolfe, issued a statement saying it's "particularly troubling that the [Baltimore Police Department] continues to lack any transparency regarding its technology acquisitions and practices."
Baltimore police played down the program and its associated technology, with department spokesman T.J. Smith saying it's "not a secret surveillance program."
"Some of the headlines [alleging] secret surveillance are irresponsible and purposefully inflammatory," Smith said at a news conference on Aug. 24, per the Baltimore Sun. "This is a 21st century investigative tool used to assist in solving crimes."
Smith compared it to CitiWatch, a program that combines almost 1,000 city-owned street-level cameras with footage from cameras on commercial and private property. The police maintain a "watch center" where the cameras are monitored around the clock.
Normally, Baltimore would pay PSS about $2 million a year for an ongoing contract, according to Bloomberg, but the first several months of the program was financed by Texas-based investors Laura and John Arnold.
One member of the PSS team who tracks the real-time feeds is Terrence Rice, a 25-year-old from Baltimore County. Reel spoke to Rice as the analyst tried to track images of a pickup truck whose driver was suspected of illegal dumping, part of a practice exercise for Rice's third day on the job at PSS.
"It reminds me of playing a video game," Rice said. "And that's what they told me over the phone. They said if I was into video games, then I might like this work."