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Baltimore aerial surveillance agreement: $3.7 million price tag, privacy protections, evaluation plan

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held the first of three community forums on Wednesday March 11, 2020 to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April. Photo by McKenna Oxenden.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held the first of three community forums on Wednesday March 11, 2020 to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April. Photo by McKenna Oxenden. (McKenna Oxenden)

Private donors are expected to put up nearly $3.7 million to fund a controversial plan to fly three private surveillance planes over Baltimore, according to a document obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The previously undisclosed agreement between the Baltimore Police Department and Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems details how the pilot aerial surveillance program will be funded, what privacy protections will be instituted and how it will be evaluated.

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Police previously declined to provide a copy of the contract until it was approved by the city’s spending board — a vote initially scheduled for Wednesday. But citing limits on public debate due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Estimates delayed its decision by a week.

“Something of that significance has to have public discussion, which we know takes on a different meaning during the COVID-19″ pandemic, City Council President Brandon Scott said during Wednesday’s virtual board meeting. The state banned mass gathering to limit the spread of the virus.

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The 33-page document, dated March 17 and marked “Final,” is clear that city taxpayers won’t pick up any of the costs of running the aerial surveillance program. Wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold — through their organization, Arnold Ventures — would pay to operate the six-month pilot, including salaries for pilots and analysts, hangar space and the more than $150,000 expected to be used for promoting public awareness.

Arnold Ventures also would pay for grants to enable teams of independent researchers to study whether the aerial surveillance program has an impact on Baltimore’s unrelenting violent crime. The city has suffered more than 300 homicides annually for five years in a row.

"The Parties acknowledge that this technology has not been implemented in any US City and its effect on crime has not been analyzed and is unknown at this time,” the document states.

The Baltimore-based Abell Foundation is expected to provide funding for a firm to independently “verify that the aerial imagery is used solely for the limited purposes” outlined in the agreement.

The agreement states that images collected by the three planes — which are able to capture 32 square miles of the city, for a minimum of 40 hours a week — can be used only to help investigate murders, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison could request aerial surveillance data be tapped for other reasons under “extraordinary and exigent circumstances,” according to the agreement, including a kidnapping, chemical spill or train derailment. The program is not designed to provide the police department with real-time surveillance, but instead will briefly archive material that may be used to aid investigations.

Harrison has described the first-in-the-nation program as an “investigative tool” for police. The department hopes to launch the planes by early April, but needs the Board of Estimates to sign off first.

The move has been decried by civil liberties advocates who say the surveillance planes violate residents’ rights and privacy.

There’s a complicated history: In 2016, a Bloomberg News report revealed that Persistent Surveillance Systems had partnered with the police department to secretly fly a surveillance plane over Baltimore.

The ACLU of Maryland submitted a letter of protest Tuesday asking the Board of Estimates postpone its vote.

Senior ACLU attorney David Rocah wrote that there has been “inadequate public information” about the city’s decision to move forward with the pilot program, especially while so many people are focused on a global health emergency.

“The very existence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public health crisis and disruption it has engendered, has significantly impacted the public’s ability to focus on or participate in any public discussion of this far reaching new technology,” Rocah wrote.

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Harrison said during a recent community forum that no one knows how long the country will be grappling with the coronavirus.

“We have the capacity to introduce something that could be a tool,” he said. “It would be derelict in our duties if something is available to us that we didn’t use only because we were waiting.”

Rocah also slammed the city for not publishing a copy of the agreement prior to board’s vote, keeping the public from being able to meaningfully comment on its contents, especially related to privacy protections.

Persistent Surveillance Systems cannot disclose or sell any of the data obtained during the pilot program, according to the agreement obtained by The Sun.

The document also states that Persistent Surveillance Systems will institute both internal and external controls to ensure people’s privacy is protected. Analysts will be recorded on video, with the footage "stored for use in the event that unauthorized use of the AIR technology system occurs to determine the circumstances of the misuse.”

The resolution on the images generated by the planes is limited to one pixel per person or vehicle, making each figure appear only as a single dot that can be tracked from a crime scene. The systems won’t use infrared or night vision technology, the document states.

The agreement also outlines how Persistent Surveillance Systems analysts would use the aerial surveillance data in concert with the broad array of ground-level camera already in place across Baltimore.

Analysts are to assemble detailed investigative reports within three days of being tapped to look into a crime. These reports will include “imagery of the crime scene, tracks of vehicles and people who were at the scene of the crime as potential suspects or witnesses prior to and after the crime, locations of the vehicles and people visited prior to and after the crime” and more.

If a report is used to arrest someone, it will be provided to prosecutors when they are assigned a case.

Footage must be deleted after 45 days if it’s not needed for an investigation. But, according to the agreement, that data retention period can be revisited if the pilot program is deemed successful and extended.

Harrison, who initially was skeptical of the program, has pledged to ground the planes if they don’t generate results. The agreement gives the Baltimore Police Department the right to terminate the agreement at any time.

The pilot program will be judged by several metrics: Whether aerial surveillance enables police to solve more crimes, boosts community relations and deters criminal activity.

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Persistent Surveillance Systems is to provide weekly, monthly and quarterly updates outlining the number of investigative reports and court orders filed that are related to the aerial surveillance program, along with other details.

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There also will be a group of research teams working to analyze the pilot program.

The Policing Project at the New York University School of Law is expected to evaluate issues such as civil liberties and data protection affected by the surveillance plane, while the University of Baltimore would examine the community response and the RAND Corp. would look at the programs efficacy.

Morgan State University also has been asked to participate, Harrison said.

Arnold Ventures tapped NYU’s Policing Project to evaluate the surveillance plane in Baltimore, said Barry Friedman, the project’s director. A team has been given access to both Baltimore Police and Persistent Surveillance procedures, he said, and will submit a report to the police department on its findings.

“Anytime we look at technology, we basically sort of lift up the hood and look underneath,” getting documents, talking to people and setting it up against standard practices, he said. “These technologies need to be evaluated in a way that the public can make an informed decision."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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