For the past year, the Baltimore Police Department has been using a private company to conduct widespread aerial surveillance of the city to help solve crimes, Bloomberg revealed in an in-depth report published on Tuesday.
Persistent Surveillance Systems provided Baltimore a with a surveillance program using a small Cessna airplane equipped with high-resolution cameras that would monitor about 30 square miles of the city, the report said.
Police used the company’s technology to follow the unrest in the wake of the trial of the police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
The Bloomberg report alleges that the city of Baltimore never publicly disclosed the surveillance program, which was funded by a private donor.
The surveillance proved to be helpful in solving several crimes, ranging from burglaries to hit-and-runs, the report said, as well as more serious crimes like homicides.
In one instance, a surveillance plane captured data in an area just after a 90-year-old woman and her 82-year-old brother had been shot. Persistent Surveillance Systems analysts were tasked with poring over the information and were able to retrace a suspect’s steps, which allowed police to later take him into custody.
Ross McNutt, Persistent Surveillance Systems’ founder, originally developed a similar surveillance program for the military to investigate roadside bombings and other terrorist threats in Iraq. The program, Angel Fire, later became the basis for the technology that was implemented in Baltimore.
The program has drawn criticism in other cities like Compton, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where a trial-run was done in 2012. Residents there would not learn about it until a year later, the report noted.
McNutt attempted to quell the privacy concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union — ostensibly by trying to prove that the surveillance technology was not as invasive as it seemed — but his presentation only validated the agency’s worries.
“I said to myself, ‘This is where the rubber hits the road. The technology has finally arrived, and Big Brother, which everyone has always talked about, is finally here,'” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst and privacy expert with the ACLU, told Bloomberg.