Baltimore’s citizens were under high-tech aerial surveillance by their police for six months, and no one outside of law enforcement – not even the mayor – knew it.
Incredibly, police were able to conduct the surveillance without the knowledge or approval of the city’s elected officials.
To this day, the surveillance is still being conducted by a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. Images are recorded by special cameras in a small Cessna aircraft that looks just like any other private plane so that no one grows suspicious. Approval by the city council was not needed because the surveillance is being funded by hedge fund billionaires Laura and John Arnold, The Atlantic reported.
“Technology has reached a point where billionaires can simply bankroll aerial surveillance that significantly and secretly compromises the privacy of hundreds of thousands,” Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf noted.
The Cessna flies over the city for around 10 hours a day and has been doing so since January. The cameras can take pictures of an area up to 30 square miles in area, Bloomberg reported. All images are instantly transmitted to computers and permanently stored on hard drives.
‘Under a Siege of Cameras’
News of the surveillance has outraged citizens.
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“This whole city is under a siege of cameras,” Baltimore resident Ralph Pritchett Sr. complained to Bloomberg.
Baltimore’s streets are already lined with 700 police surveillance cameras, but that apparently was not enough.
The Baltimore Police Department contracted with Persistent to monitor citizens using technology developed for use by the military in Iraq. The only provision the department had was that no public funding be used – so that citizens, the media and elected officials would not find out.
The Cessna flies over the city and takes pictures of activity on the ground with digital cameras. Since the plane is not marked, citizens have no idea it belongs to police. The image is relayed to computers at a secret Persistent office hidden in a parking garage.
Eye in the Sky
“Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability,” Persistent founder Ross McNutt said of his technology.
The camera system was developed to detect roadside bombs in Iraq in 2007 and deployed at battles like Fallujah.
Since then, it’s been used in two American cities: Compton (California) and Baltimore. The technology has also been used in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — just across the border from El Paso — and at public events like NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 race.
Persistent tested the technology in Compton with the help of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2012. The tests ended when the public learned they were under surveillance. Even Compton’s mayor did not realize what was taking place.
“There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown told The Los Angeles Times.
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