Baltimore Surveillance Plane System Deferred

Early into Michael Harrison’s tenure as Baltimore’s police commissioner, the company Persistent Surveillance Systems presented him with an idea to reduce the city’s murder rate – airborne wide-area surveillance.

The company would operate a plane with a camera, capturing ½ meter resolution footage of the vast majority of the city in order to help solve, and hopefully stop, crime.

“The biggest thing we want to do is deter people from committing crimes in the first place,” said the company’s President and Chief Technical Officer Ross McNutt, in an interview with MeriTalk.

The Ohio-based company had operated in Baltimore before, in 2016 when an article in Bloomberg Businessweek brought the agreement between the police department and the company to light and the program ended. Three years later, McNutt pitched the idea to a new commissioner.

“How it was forecasted, I did not accept it,” said Harrison, who started in Baltimore in March 2019. A plane to reduce the city’s murder rate?

“I was against this because of the way it was presented,” said Harrison, during an online forum about the program on March 23. But the company persisted, asking Harrison if he would reconsider if all the concerns were addressed.

“There became no reason not to do it,” said Harrison, of the Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) Pilot Program. The program, funded by Texas-based company Arnold Ventures, will operate up to 180 days from its scheduled start in April 2020.

The contract, or memorandum of understanding, between Persistent Surveillance Systems and the Police Department was scheduled to go before the city’s Board of Estimates today before Board Chair and City Council President Brandon Scott deferred the item for one week.

“I just saw [the memorandum of understanding] yesterday and we’re going to be asking more questions about it,” said Scott, in an interview with MeriTalk today. “That’s one of the reasons we deferred this to make sure that council members and the comptroller are briefed.”

“The ACLU of Maryland and NAACP Legal Defense Fund have also filed protests that deserve to be heard,” said Scott, in a statement.

Baltimore would become the first city in the country to fully implement the program, but the decision to enter into such an agreement is not up to the city council.

The Baltimore Police Department is a state agency, which means only the mayor has authority over the department and the agreement between Persistent Surveillance Systems and the police commissioner. The mayor’s office did not offer a comment about the program.

Not Flying for the First Time

While Baltimore would be the first city to fully implement the program, these surveillance systems have operated before, not only in Baltimore, but in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I built this system for the military to help save lives,” McNutt said. The technology was originally developed to help identify individuals planting explosive devices.

The footage reduces each person to one pixel, essentially a dot, which can be traced to or from the scene of a crime based off information provided by the police department. Analysts hired by Persistent Surveillance Systems access the system and provide reports to police investigators upon request. No personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s race, gender, or age, is available from the aerial system alone.

McNutt said his company did a demonstration in Baltimore for U.S. Secret Service for less than a week in 2008. The company logged about 300 hours during the 2016 run, McNutt said, the equivalent of two weeks of flight time. Members of City Council were unaware of the program before it was publicly reported during its run four years ago.

Council President Brandon Scott said in a December statement that the police department testified that “in the time the surveillance plane was secretly used in Baltimore, it yielded zero pieces of evidence that could be used to fight crime.”

The April 2017 consent decree between the City of Baltimore and the Department of Justice requires the police department to publicly disclose any new technology acquisitions and how the technology will be used before it is deployed.

The police department’s website says these surveillance aircrafts will operate approximately 40 hours per week and collect imagery of over 90 percent of the city to support investigations during the four-to-six-month pilot period. The focus of the pilot is to support investigation of serious offenses – murder, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies, and car-jackings – with additional use cases determined by the commissioner. Flight times for the program will be made public, Harrison said during the public forum.

With 348 homicides in 2019, the department solved only about a third of the cases. Commissioner Harrison says he does not know if the surveillance system will be useful in deterring or solving crime.

“There is no expectation that this program will work,” said Harrison, at the online forum, the second public forum held by the police department on the AIR program. “The data will inform us whether it works or not.”

Harrison emphasized the independent research and the program audit. The commissioner said he had reached out to Morgan State University to conduct the independent research. Offers had also been extended to University of Baltimore, New York University, and the RAND Corporation. As of the March 23 forum, the researcher nor the auditor had been solidified.

Harrison said the department was working with the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation to secure funding for the civilian audit. The auditor would, for example, ensure that data for the program would be deleted by Persistent Surveillance Systems, if not used after 45 days.

With less than a month before the program’s start, Harrison said, “We don’t know if it’s going to work.”

“The Comprehensiveness of it is Different.”

Last year, as of February, the police department had access to over 600 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras throughout the city.

More are coming, said Harrison, adding that the AIR program is another tool.

Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said the plane is a different kind of surveillance.

“The comprehensiveness of it is different,” said Stanley. It is easier have a whole view of the city at once with one camera on a plane then it is to stitch all the CCTV camera footage together using artificial intelligence, he explained.

Stanley said the AIR program raises “serious constitutional questions” because everybody in a city at once is monitored without individualized suspicion. “The government has to have evidence that you are involved in a wrongdoing,” said Stanley, calling that a central principal of American law.

“This is a wartime technology that was developed for overseas battlefields,” said Stanley, “not something that we should be bringing back and turning on our own people.”

McNutt, who has met with the ACLU, emphasizes the support the program has from the Baltimore community. The Community Support Program appears to use the same Airborne Wide Area Surveillance technology as the company Persistent Surveillance Systems, according to information on both websites. The Community Support Program website posts a memorandum of law in support of the use of wide area motion imagery.

Baltimore radio host Farajii Muhammad, who moderated questions during the March 23 forum, asked the commissioner, “How do we strike the balance?”

“I have that concern,” Harrison said. “The balance is about the measures of accountability.”

With pending protests from the ACLU of Maryland and NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Scott’s office released a statement in response to the program being deferred by the Board of Estimates.

 “An item of this significance requires a level of communication that has not been met,” Scott said.

Dwight Weingarten
About Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is MeriTalk SLG's Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.