The Baltimore Police Department on Wednesday acknowledged testing aerial surveillance technology over the city since January and defended the previously undisclosed program against critics. A police spokesman said the aerial surveillance program would continue for at least a few more weeks.
Following a Bloomberg Businessweek report about the program published on Tuesday, several civil liberties groups expressed outrage over the surveillance, which is conducted by a private company based in Dayton, Ohio, called Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. The national office of the ACLU in Washington issued a statement saying the program shouldn’t have been launched without a public debate.
“It continues to be stunning that American police forces feel that they can use deeply radical and controversial surveillance systems, which raise the most profound questions about our society and its values, without telling the public that will be subject to these technologies—the public they are supposed to be serving,” wrote Jay Stanley, a privacy expert and policy analyst for the group. Maryland's public defender, Paul DeWolfe, issued a statement saying that “it is particularly troubling that the [Baltimore Police Department] continues to lack any transparency regarding its technology acquisitions and practices,” particularly after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a 163-page report earlier this month concluding that Baltimore police repeatedly violated citizens’ civil rights.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, police spokesman T.J. Smith cast the program as a natural extension of Baltimore’s CitiWatch program, which uses more than 700 ground-based cameras to keep an eye on city streets. The aerial program, however, operates on a vastly larger scale than ground-based cameras, capturing a continuously updated image of an area measuring roughly 30 square miles. The images are archived, and police can effectively follow the movements of vehicles or individuals backward and forward in time using the technology.
The surveillance program was launched with private funding provided by Laura and John D. Arnold. John is a former hedge fund manager who retired as a billionaire and since has, along with his wife, donated money to a wide variety of causes, including hot-button topics such as charter schools and public pension rollbacks. “We invest in a wide array of criminal justice issues and policies, including strategies for improving the clearance rate of criminal cases," the Arnolds wrote in a statement released Wednesday. "One such strategy is to use technology to assist police in early-stage investigations. To that end, we personally provided financial support for the aerial surveillance tool being piloted in Baltimore.”
The police will continue conducting surveillance flights for a few weeks, Smith said, and will then evaluate whether to continue with the flights and pursue more funding for them.