The revelation that a private company has been conducting secret aerial surveillance on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department — collecting and storing footage from city neighborhoods — is causing confusion, concern, and outrage among elected officials and civil liberties advocates, reports the Baltimore Sun. Some demanded an immediate stop to the program pending a full, public accounting of its capabilities and its use in the city to date, including in the prosecution of crimes.
Some called it “astounding” in its ability to intrude on individual privacy rights, and legally questionable in terms of constitutional law. Others did not fault the program but said it should have been disclosed publicly before it began in January. The program — in which Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems has for months been testing sophisticated surveillance cameras aboard a small Cessna airplane flying high above the city — was disclosed Tuesday by Bloomberg Businessweek, which was given exclusive access to the company’s testing.
The arrangement was kept secret in part because it never appeared before the city’s spending board, paid for instead through private donations handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation. T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, confirmed that the company had conducted 100 hours of surveillance in January and February and 200 hours of surveillance between June and this month. It will continue conducting surveillance for another several weeks before the Police Department evaluates its effectiveness and decides whether to continue the program, he said. He took issue with calling the program “secret surveillance,” suggesting there was no need for the department to make it public. He likened the program to an expansion of the city’s existing CitiWatch system of street-level cameras.