Charm City: A Private Surveillance Experiment Hoping to Set National Standards

September 16, 2016

demasky_baltimore_harbor_photoIf you’ve ever spent a night in one of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, chances are you may have seen the infamous Baltimore rats. I say “may have” because it’s equally likely you mistook them for stray cats. And if you’ve spent some time in Baltimore since this past January, chances are you’ve unknowingly been a part of another rat colony the city has created. The city, or rather its police department, has turned the citizens of Baltimore into laboratory rats for surveillance technology experiments.
Back in August, Bloomberg broke news of an aerial surveillance program implemented by Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), a privately owned surveillance company from Dayton, Ohio. This unveiling was on the heels of a ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that required the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to obtain a warrant before utilizing stingray surveillance devices. While the stingray devices had been something of a common practice within the BPD, the PSS program was initiated by Ross McNutt, the founder of PSS. And if you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of the program, it’s because it was never brought before the public, or even the Baltimore Board of Estimates. How can the city get away with that? It’s because they aren’t using taxpayer dollars to fund the program. The Baltimore PSS program is being funded by John Arnold, a former Enron trader turned philanthropist from Texas.
Now this isn’t Baltimore’s first time under a watchful eye. In addition to the stingray devices mentioned above, the city has over 700 street level police cameras. And Baltimore isn’t McNutt’s first rodeo. McNutt was a former Air Force physicist and astronautical engineer who developed a surveillance method to detect roadside bombing suspects in Iraq. After retiring from the military, McNutt founded PSS, and used that same technology to detect crimes in Juarez, Mexico. From there, McNutt tried to take PSS to both Los Angeles and Dayton, but was at least initially unsuccessful. McNutt then set his sights on Charm City. So why Baltimore? Well, beside the fact that the city permitted him to demo the program in Baltimore back in 2008, it’s because McNutt saw Baltimore as the solution to remedy his failures in Los Angeles and Dayton: technology and reliability.
The biggest reason PSS failed to get LAPD approval was because of technology. LAPD decided the program wasn’t up to their expectations nor did it meet their needs. Despite making improvements to the technology, the program failed in Dayton because the citizens weren’t confident in the reliability of the program to both protect the people and hold the police using the program accountable. Rather, they feared it would be used to target minority groups. McNutt had his eye on Baltimore because he believed it would give him the data he needed to both develop the technology and provide evidence of its reliability to quell the naysayers and the fearful. I’m not sure, however, it follows logically from McNutt’s reasons for selecting Baltimore that his goals will be achieved.

Baltimore is an ideal city for McNutt’s surveillance program because of its “high crime rates, racially biased policing, strained community-police relations, and lack of police oversight.” In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent riots, McNutt said the city was “ready [and] willing.”

But was it? How ready and willing can a city be if the project wasn’t even brought to the public’s attention for discussion in a public hearing? The city wouldn’t even acknowledge the project until Bloomberg broke the story, at which time Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she hadn’t heard of the project, but supported it saying it was “cutting-edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safe.” She also stated, rather contradictorily, “This technology is about public safety. This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone.” But isn’t that exactly what it does?
Beyond providing McNutt with the data he desired, program goals are to reduce crime rates, lessen biased policing, and improve police oversight and community-police relations. But when the group running the program is the same group requiring improved oversight, what provides the accountability to ensure increased oversight and decreased biased policing? How can community-police relations be improved when the community finds out about a secret surveillance program from someone other than the police utilizing it? Weren’t our parents less angry finding out about our bad grades from us than our teachers? And how can the program deter crime if only the police know the plane is surveilling the city? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spread the word to everyone at once, rather than hope it trickles down amidst the populace as criminals are caught by the program?
Rawlings-Blake says the program is for Baltimore’s safety. Does knowledge of a plane flying above you at 8500 feet recording continuous footage for hours on end, and has been doing so without your knowledge for months, make you feel safe? If not, you’re not alone—Compton Mayor Aja Brown felt similarly. If, like other Baltimoreans, you feel uncomfortable with the program, take the opportunity to weigh in and write in to Baltimore City Mayor’s office and Maryland state government. If you support the program, you can still write in and express your support. And if you’re not a Baltimorean, the program could already be in or coming to a city near you, as PSS is not limited to Baltimore. One way or another, in order to achieve the program’s goals, some regulations, increased transparency, and accountability or checks and balances should be put in place for the program to continue.