“Big Brother is finally here” — starting in Baltimore


Bloomberg Businessweek

cSince January, police have been testing an aerial surveillance system adapted from the surge in Iraq. And they neglected to tell the public.

The sky over the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on June 23 was the color of a dull nickel, and a broad deck of lowering clouds threatened rain. A couple dozen people with signs—“Justice 4 Freddie Gray”…lingered by the corner of the courthouse, watching the network TV crews rehearse their standups. Sheriff’s officers in bulletproof vests clustered around the building’s doors, gripping clubs with both hands.

Inside, a judge was delivering the verdict in the case of Caesar Goodson, the only Baltimore police officer facing a murder charge for the death of Freddie Gray…

The verdict trickled out of the courthouse in text messages: not guilty, all counts. Ralph Pritchett Sr…stood on the sidewalk among the protesters…In a city with more than 700 street-level police cameras, he wondered, shouldn’t the authorities have had video of Gray’s ride?

“This whole city is under a siege of cameras,” said Pritchett…

Pritchett had no idea that as he spoke, a small Cessna airplane equipped with a sophisticated array of cameras was circling Baltimore at roughly the same altitude as the massing clouds. The plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground. The footage from the plane was instantly archived and stored on massive hard drives, allowing analysts to review it weeks later if necessary.

Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department had been using the plane to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings. The Cessna sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.

A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton, Ohio, provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made…

A half block from the city’s central police station, in a spare office suite above a parking garage, Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, monitored the city’s reaction to the Goodson verdict by staring at a bank of computer monitors…

McNutt is an Air Force Academy graduate, physicist, and MIT-trained astronautical engineer who in 2004 founded the Air Force’s Center for Rapid Product Development. The Pentagon asked him if he could develop something to figure out who was planting the roadside bombs that were killing and maiming American soldiers in Iraq. In 2006 he gave the military Angel Fire, a wide-area, live-feed surveillance system that could cast an unblinking eye on an entire city…

McNutt retired from the military in 2007 and modified the technology for commercial development…

Almost everything about the surveillance program feels hush-hush; the city hasn’t yet acknowledged its existence, and the police department declined requests for interviews about the program…

McNutt says he’s sure his system can withstand a public unveiling and that the more people know about what his cameras can—and can’t—do, the fewer worries they’ll have. But the police ultimately decide who and what should be tracked. In a city that’s struggled to convince residents that its police can be trusted, the arguments are now Baltimore’s to make.

RTFA. It’s long and detailed. It makes the case for tracking down and arresting lawbreakers. The police love it. Every law-abiding citizen should love it.

How far do you trust police and politicians to go with the technology?

I have no more problem with this than I do with public CCTV. Identified as such. However, the regulation and oversight of this tech – like any other means of spying on the bad guys – must include protection for ordinary citizens within constitutional boundaries. Of course.

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