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Retention of Baltimore police surveillance footage breaks with company's standard 45-day policy

Persistent Surveillance Systems' wide area camera imagery captures wide swaths of Baltimore at once. The camera has collected more than 300 hours of surveillance footage over eight months.
Persistent Surveillance Systems' wide area camera imagery captures wide swaths of Baltimore at once. The camera has collected more than 300 hours of surveillance footage over eight months. (Handout)

In touting its technology, the private Ohio-based company that has conducted hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department since January often pointed to a privacy policy that includes restrictions on footage retention.

"All media will be stored in a secure area with access restricted to authorized persons," Persistent Surveillance Systems' policy states. "Recordings not otherwise needed for criminal evidence or for official reasons are retained for a period of 45 days and then destroyed."

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However, that policy was not followed during the pilot program to test the technology in Baltimore, according to the police department.

After the department's use of the aerial surveillance was exposed in August — the public, top city officials, local elected leaders, prosecutors and public defenders had been kept in the dark — Deputy Public Defender Natalie Finegar contacted the police department with a range of questions about the program and a request that all data gathered through the program be preserved while attorneys in the public defender's office determined the possible implications of its existence for their criminal clients.

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Finegar also requested information about the program's policy for retaining the videos.

In a Sept. 20 response, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis assured Finegar that the footage would be retained — all of the footage, dating back months.

"Vendor, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), has verified that all images recorded/captured during the pilot program have been saved and archived and are therefore available, regardless of whether the images were provided to BPD for use in investigations," Davis wrote.

On the question of retention, he wrote: "Under the pilot phases, the retention protocol has been to preserve all data captured."

Given that surveillance began in Baltimore in January, the retention of footage in the pilot program went well beyond 45 days before Finegar got involved.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, noted the pilot nature of the program and said the department is currently working on an "after action plan" to figure out "the best method and timeframe to retain and destroy" the footage that is collected.

"Fact is, we just don't know what will work best until we complete our after action report on this program," he said.

The difference between Persistent Surveillance Systems' standard retention policy and its retention policy during the Baltimore pilot program was noted by Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, as a cause for alarm.

"The retention policy is one of the critical questions with regard to any surveillance program because the longer data is retained, the greater the opportunities for misuse and for repurposing of the data into new uses that can harm people in new and expanded ways," Stanley wrote in a blog post last week. "To be clear, we do not think this program should be operating at all. But it becomes even worse the longer the imagery is retained."

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