Secret surveillance a hard sell in Baltimore

Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems believe his surveillance photos of the city could have other possibilities besides exposing crime in the city. It could possibly be used by private companies to see who's at fault in a car accident. (Baltimore Sun video)

There's a lot to be uncomfortable with when it comes to Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Ohio-based aerial surveillance company that secretly spied on Baltimore for the police department from a Cessna plane in 2016 before the program was shut down over widespread privacy concerns.

What they do — take thousands of images from the sky that can be used to track people's movements — is creepy, Big Brothery and feels somehow un-American. Still, the company is making a lot of promises about solving and preventing crime that sound awfully good after three straight years of more than 300 murders in Baltimore, especially to those who live in areas ravaged by violence.


Having branded themselves a friendy-sounding "Community Support Program," PSS and its city supporters are touring Baltimore, attempting to convince officials and residents to bring it back, tweaking the message depending upon the audience. Distrust police? PSS can keep tabs on officers, too. Concerned about violent crime? They'll reduce it by up to 30 percent in the first year — that's 105 fewer murders and nearly 1,500 fewer shootings. Wrongfully accused? They can provide an alibi. Need a job? They plan to train and hire data analysts locally.

Did the person who wrote the executive summary of a report on BPD aerial surveillance actually read the report?

It won't even cost the city a cent in the first year: Philanthropists will pay the bill to start, then PSS has promised to fly its planes at cost — $1.6 million annually — for the next several years so it can use Baltimore as the model to sell itself nationwide.


What's not to like?

A lack of data, for one. PSS flew for about 300 hours over Baltimore in 2016, during a period when there were roughly 100 murders in the city (in January and February and again from mid-June to mid-August). Of those, PSS provided police briefings to help with just five homicide cases. A search of news reports and public records shows that one of those cases was eventually ruled a suicide; two others have yet to result in arrests; and while a fourth did lead to an arrest — and television news coverage praising PSS — the charges were dropped against the suspect a month after they were filed.

Court records do show that a fifth case — a double-homicide on Feb. 20th of 2016 on the 2300 block of W. Lafayette St. — led to the arrest of Troy Lamonta Bradner, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges in January of this year (two days before his 18th birthday). But the role PSS played is unclear, and that's not exactly the kind of clearance rate that's going to deter future criminals, which they say is a critical component to their service.

For months, company officials and community members have been pushing to build support around Baltimore to bring back the police surveillance plane, which has been grounded for months.

In a meeting with The Sun's editorial board last week, PSS and some of their community supporters — which include a retired nurse whose son barely survived having his throat cut and a man whose own experiences with law enforcement have left him distrustful of police — outlined how it works.

PSS uses cameras attached to a small plane to take multiple pictures of a 32-square-mile wide area and then analyze them if asked to do so after a crime occurs, to track the cars and people (which look like small dots onscreen) that were around the area before the incident and determine where they went afterward. They can then tap into the city's surveillance cameras for close-up images or direct officers to businesses that suspects may have gone into to review recordings owners may have. PSS showed us one case in Mexico in which they were able to track a suspect right to a front door and then use Google Earth images to see the address on the building. It all looked pretty cool, I'll give them that.

The plan from there is to help catch, convict and punish more criminals (possibly avoiding retaliatory revenge killings through court justice) then take their presentation into high schools to deter future lawbreakers (they may want to aim for middle school). And — voila! — crime is down, property values are up, the tax base increases, schools improve, and Amazon builds its third headquarters here.

Of all times, now is the worst moment to entrust the Baltimore Police Department with new technology that is so vast in scope and raises clear privacy implications without having clear standards and mechanisms surrounding its use firmly in place.

To a city desperate for a turnaround, it sounds too good to be true. And so, it probably is — particularly when you consider the actual risks associated with the hypothetical rewards.

PSS owns and stores the images it takes, which means they're not subject to public information laws, and it would have access to city cameras on the ground for its analysis — that's a very wide reach. There are myriad ways such information could be abused, and the accountability measures are unconvincing. The company says it would use the information only in certain agreed upon ways. But for a surveillance company to say "just trust us" is a rather big ask — particularly in a city where some on the police department have routinely violated residents' constitutional rights.

PSS might help solve crimes. But Baltimore's history makes it a hard sell here.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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