Surveillance program raises questions about tech, privacy

AP News
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Posted: Aug 26, 2016 6:11 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — With more than two-thirds of Baltimore's 200 murders this year unsolved, many violent criminals are staying a step ahead of the law. The police department hoped to even the score by quietly taking to the skies to record everything visible in the streets below, 32 square miles at a time.

Unbeknownst to the mayor, state's attorney or other city officials, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis agreed to let Persistent Surveillance Systems try out its time-traveling technology over Baltimore.

The Ohio-based company captured roughly 300 hours of images using powerful cameras from a small plane in January and February, June and August. Analysts then zoomed in on crime scenes, moving backward and forward in time among the images to see suspects arriving and getting away. Officers were alerted to their locations to make arrests, and some of these people now await trial.

Davis defended the technology after the tryout's existence was revealed Tuesday by Bloomberg Businessweek, instantaneously inspiring widespread outrage and criticism that an entire city's citizens could lose civil liberties without so much as a public hearing.

But the commissioner remains enthusiastic, noting in a statement that 84 percent of homicides happen on city streets, many in broad daylight.

"Imagine the capacity to retrospectively review those public-space crime scenes and capture images of criminals, their vehicles and their before-and-after travel routes. Now just think what that type of evidence-based policing would mean for our crime closure rates," Davis said.

The disclosure came at a time when the Baltimore Police Department is under increased scrutiny: just two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report outlining widespread discrimination and use of excessive force in the department within the department.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake endorsed using "cutting-edge technology" to bolster public safety, but both she and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said they were just recently informed. Mosby said police only told prosecutors this week that the technology was used in five open cases that may be imperiled if the evidence is inadmissible.

Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department "understands the anxieties citizens might have," but he repeatedly dismissed the criticism.

"It's not a secret spy plane," he told reporters. "I'm telling you, that's not what it is. It's not a secret spy program. This is not a drone. This is not an unmanned machine. It's a tool that's used as a resource."

But with surveillance technology advancing at warp speed, court decisions have not kept up, raising concerns that police may be unwittingly committing constitutional violations, said Adam Schwartz, a senior civil rights lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"For policing in a democracy to be legitimate, the police need to get permission from the public before they adopt a new spy technology," Schwartz told The Associated Press on Friday. "Have they crossed the line? We don't know."

Earlier this year Maryland's second-highest court ruled for the first time that using cell-site simulators known as stingrays without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. For years, Baltimore police had used stingrays, which mimic a cell tower by forcing cellphones in an area to connect to it, without a warrant or any disclosure to judges or defense attorneys. Authorities instead signed a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI requiring officers to keep their use secret. In court, prosecutors agreed to drop cases rather than risk disclosure.

"Before the government adopts any type of technology like this, whether it's spying from airplanes above or using cell site simulators to scrutinize the public, there needs to be a conversation beforehand," Schwartz said.

City-funded contracts require approval from the Board of Estimates, but this surveillance tryout was funded through a wealthy couple's donation to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit civic organization.

As Schwartz derided the workaround as a "semi-public, semi-private slush fund," the foundation promised in a statement Friday to "increase scrutiny of this type of payment."

Smith said the plane is simply a higher-capacity version of the 700 closed-circuit cameras installed on street corners through Baltimore's CitiWatch program.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, said "it's the equivalent of requiring each of us to wear a GPS tracker whenever we leave our homes."

"This is yet another example of battlefield technology moving to domestic law enforcement without public scrutiny -- but Baltimore is not a battlefield, and its residents are not the enemy," ACLU attorney David Rocah said.

Persistent Surveillance Systems has been struggling to persuade a major U.S. city to formally adopt its technology. The company's founder, Ross McNutt, still hopes Baltimore will start a trend.

"We'd been looking for a department that's got the leadership to step up and evaluate what we do. We believe we contribute significantly to the safety and support of the citizens in Baltimore," McNutt said at the news conference.

This technology can "solve unsolvable crimes" and make people think twice about committing them, since they'll more likely be caught and convicted, he added.

Since desperate times call for desperate measures, Smith said the department "is constantly evaluating ways to stop people from dying in Baltimore."

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Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com