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Secret Baltimore Police Aerial Spy Program Underscores Need for Surveillance Oversight

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BALTIMORE, Md. (Sept. 2, 2016) – The recent revelation of a privately funded aerial spy program run by the Baltimore Police Department underscores the importance of local government oversight of police department surveillance programs.

Persistent Surveillance System developed the aerial surveillance program based on methods used during the “surge” in Iraq. A Cessna airplane equipped with an array of cameras flew over Baltimore photographing everything below, sometimes for as many as 10 hours per day. According to a Bloomberg report, the cameras can capture an area of roughly 30 square miles, continuously feeding a live steam to analysts on the ground. Computers also store the images on massive hard drives so police can access them weeks, months or even years later. Combined with an extensive network of cameras on the ground, the program can cast a surveillance net over the entire city.

Texas Billionaire John Arnold used his foundation to funnel $120,000 to the Baltimore Community Foundation. This police charity in turn funded the surveillance program, bypassing any need for local government oversight.

Ross McNutt founded Persistent Surveillance. He developed the aerial surveillance system for the Pentagon as a way to help determine who was making roadside bombs in Iraq. A military version was deployed in 2007. After McNutt retired from the military, he developed a commercial version and began shopping it to local law enforcement. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office was the first domestic agency to test the system, authorizing a nine-day trial over Compton. According to Bloomberg, the department officials didn’t sign a contract because they were not pleased with the quality of the images.

Compton residents didn’t find out about the surveillance until a year later. The revelation sparked outrage.

“There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown told the Los Angeles Times.

After making improvements to the technology, McNutt next approached his hometown police department. According to Bloomberg, the Dayton, Ohio, P.D. and the city council was sold on the idea, but the proposal got nixed after public hearings sparked outrage, particularly in minority communities. University of Dayton human rights teacher Joel Pruce organized opposition to the aerial surveillance.

“At the hearings, nobody spoke in favor of it except for the people working for the city. The black community, in particular, said, ‘We’ve seen this type of thing before. This will target us, and you didn’t even come to us beforehand to see how we’d feel about it.’”

Shortly thereafter, Arnold contacted McNutt and told him if he could find a city willing to run the program for several months, he would fund it. According to Bloomberg, “McNutt had met the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s ground-based camera system on the trade-show circuit, and they’d become friendly.’We settled in on Baltimore because it was ready, it was willing, and it was just post-Freddie Gray.'”

The entire program was funded and run under a cloak of secrecy, in a city already eyeball deep in surveillance activities as highlighted by the Bloomberg report.

Almost everything about the surveillance program feels hush-hush; the city hasn’t yet acknowledged its existence, and the police department declined requests for interviews about the program. On Aug. 10 the U.S. Department of Justice released a 163-page report that detailed systemic abuses within the Baltimore Police Department, including unlawful stops and the use of excessive force, that disproportionately targeted poor and minority communities and led to “unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members.” Within a week, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission claiming that the department’s warrantless use of cell phone tower simulators known by the trade name StingRay—an activity the police acknowledged last year in court—violated federal law and targeted minorities. “The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore,” the complaint stated. The city was already on the defensive, even as the aerial surveillance program was shielded from the public eye.

The contrast between Dayton and Baltimore offers an important lesson for those concerned about maintaining privacy and stopping Big Brother surveillance. As the saying goes, “sunlight is a great antiseptic.” Because Dayton’s plans for aerial surveillance were public, activists stopped it from every getting off the ground. On the other hand, the Baltimore Police Department managed to keep everything hush-hush and out of the public eye.

The wide availability of federal grant money, and apparently now even private funding, makes it possible for local law enforcement agencies to fund and acquire high-tech surveillance gear with no oversight, in fact without anybody outside the department even knowing. We have no way to know how many local police departments currently run secret surveillance programs funded by federal money or private funds. What happens to this stored data? Whom do they share it with? How do they use it? When police operate under a shroud of secrecy – nobody knows.

But we do know data gathered by local law enforcement often ends up permanently stored in federal databases. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicles by their license plates. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy. State and local law enforcement agencies operate most automatic license plate reader/tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

Local and state governments can stop secret spying simply by passing laws or ordinances prohibiting local police from acquiring surveillance equipment without local government approval. As the experience in Dayton demonstrates, public pressure can stop this kind of surveillance in its tracks. And even if the local government does approve the department’s request, it becomes impossible for the police to operate secretly. Oversight is the key. State and local governments need to act now to ensure it happens.