How Baltimore Air Surveillance Differs From Ground Cameras

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Confronted with questions about a secret aerial surveillance program used to record footage of broad swaths of Baltimore, the police department tried to allay concerns by characterizing it as a simple expansion of the existing network of street-level CitiWatch cameras. “This, effectively, is a mobile CitiWatch camera,” said police spokesman T.J. Smith. Experts in privacy law and in aerial surveillance by law enforcement say that characterization is way off base, reports the Baltimore Sun. “They’re trying to make people calm by saying, ‘Don’t worry, this is just an expansion of our CCTV program.’ It’s not,” said Anne McKenna, a law professor at Penn State University and a legal consultant to the U.S. Justice Department on aerial surveillance. “This is not a camera pole that sits in one location and films people walking back and forth.”

The new program involves a privately owned company strapping a bank of cameras into a small Cessna airplane and capturing hundreds of hours of footage — more than 32 square miles at a time — from about 8,000 feet above Baltimore. That footage is fed to analysts on the ground who can go back in time to track individuals and vehicles as they moved across the city. It is a vastly different technology from CitiWatch, said Jake Laperruque, a privacy fellow at The Constitution Project, a Washington-based think tank. It is “more invasive and is in greater need of checks and limits,” he said. “You need a lot of [street-level] cameras to get to a point where you can actually track a person’s movements throughout a city. And even then it can be difficult at a ground-level view because there are obstructions. There is a fundamental difference that makes this a whole new type of surveillance, and it should be treated as such.”

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