Sur­veil­lance pro­gram goes well beyond Ci­tiWatch, ex­perts say

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“They have a cam­era on the top of your head and they can fol­low you ev­ery time you leave a build­ing.”

in­di­vid­u­als and ve­hi­cles as they moved across the city.

It is a vastly dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy than Ci­tiWatch, said Jake Laper­ruque, a pri­vacy fel­low at The Con­sti­tu­tion Project, a Wash­ing­ton-based think tank. It is “more in­va­sive and is in greater need of checks and lim­its,” he said.

“You need a lot of [street-level] cam­eras to get to a point where you can ac­tu­ally track a per­son’s move­ments through­out a city. And even then it can be dif­fi­cult at a ground-level view be­cause there are ob­struc­tions,” Laper­ruque said. “There’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence that makes this a whole new type of sur­veil­lance, and it should be treated as such.”

Both McKenna and Laper­ruque said that given the ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences be­tween the pro­gram and the Ci­tiWatch sys­tem, the se­crecy sur­round­ing it is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic.

City Coun­cil mem­bers and state law­mak­ers weren’t even aware of the pro­gram un­til it was dis­closed in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished Tues­day, and there ap­pears to have been no leg­isla­tive over­sight.

With­out such over­sight, and care­ful con­sid­er­a­tions of such things as who can ac­cess the data and when, it’s un­clear whether the pro­gram is even op­er­at­ing within the law, McKenna said.

Un­like the city’s sys­tem of CCTV cam­eras in pub­lic, the new cam­era pro­gram films ev­ery­thing be­low it — in pub­lic and pri­vate out­door spa­ces — and for hours on end, al­low­ing track­ing.

“It’s not even like they are putting it in your back­yard,” she said. “They have a cam­era on the top of your head and they can fol­low you ev­ery time you leave a build­ing.”

McKenna said the U.S. Supreme Court has al­ready said that track­ing some­one’s ve­hi­cle for long pe­ri­ods with­out a war­rant is prob­lem­atic — and this pro­gram gives po­lice the ca­pa­bil­ity to go well beyond that.

Laper­ruque said the new sys­tem could al­low po­lice to track in­di­vid­u­als com­ing Po­lice have com­pared the city’s ae­rial sur­veil­lance pro­gram to closed-cir­cuit cam­eras like this one near the Gil­mor Homes. and go­ing from po­lit­i­cal meet­ings, protests, abor­tion clin­ics and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions whether they are in high-crime ar­eas or not, and with­out the sort of in-your-face pres­ence that would alert a com­mu­nity to abuse.

“If you placed a CCTV cam­era di­rectly out­side the front en­trance to a mosque, that would prob­a­bly raise a huge num­ber of eye­brows, with peo­ple say­ing, ‘Why are you do­ing that? That’s sketchy,’ ” Laper­ruque said.

But the new pro­gram has the po­ten­tial to put ev­ery lo­ca­tion in the city un­der sur­veil­lance, he said, and im­ple­ment­ing it sur­rep­ti­tiously meant “de­priv­ing the pub­lic of the abil­ity to en­sure there are ap­pro­pri­ate checks to pro­tect peo­ple’s pri­vacy rights.”

Ohio-based Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems is the com­pany that op­er­ates the plane and cam­eras and em­ploys the an­a­lysts re­view­ing the footage. Founder Ross McNutt stressed that the im­ages can­not iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als. He also said the footage is used only to in­ves­ti­gate crimes.

But civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates have pointed out that po­lice of­fi­cials or oth­ers with ac­cess to the data could iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als by watch­ing where they travel to and from, and there has been noth­ing pro­vided to the pub­lic out­lin­ing how such uses are pre­vented.

McKenna said such a ca­pa­bil­ity could pro­duce data ripe for abuse with­out over­sight.

“Imag­ine there is some­body who has a vendetta, and they can ac­cess the data. I’m not say­ing this is hap­pen­ing, but imag­ine the mis­use po­ten­tial for that data,” she said.

McKenna also said it is alarm­ing that the Po­lice De­part­ment is treat­ing the new pro­gram as a sim­ple ex­pan­sion of the CCTV pro­gram — and re­strict­ing it un­der poli­cies that ap­ply to the CCTV cam­eras — be­cause the safe­guards against mis­use of the CCTV pro­gram aren’t suf­fi­cient to safe­guard against mis­use of the new pro­gram.

“If they’re telling us, ‘We’re treat­ing this just like it’s part of our CCTV pro­gram,’ that means they don’t need a war­rant to look at that data,” McKenna said. “And if that’s how they’re treat­ing it, that means they aren’t tak­ing the same pre­cau­tion as so many other po­lice de­part­ments that are aware of the power of ae­rial street sur­veil­lance.”

Smith and Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ingsBlake said the trial pro­gram is also an ex­am­ple of Bal­ti­more lead­ing the way to­ward na­tional best prac­tices in the area of ae­rial sur­veil­lance by law en­force­ment. “We don’t al­ways have to seek out best prac­tices; Bal­ti­more can also cre­ate them,” the mayor said in a state­ment.

But McKenna said Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials ap­pear to have dived head­first with­out pub­lic over­sight into a field ripe with con­sti­tu­tional and le­gal pit­falls — one many other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and agen­cies she has ad­vised have ap­proached with ex­treme cau­tion in or­der to en­sure they aren’t vi­o­lat­ing the rights of lo­cal res­i­dents.

Those that have adopted new-age sur­veil­lance pro­grams, such as un­manned ve­hi­cles like drones, have done so “un­der a re­ally tightly con­trolled pro­gram where there is full dis­clo­sure, where the pub­lic is on no­tice when the area sur­veil­lance ve­hi­cle is in op­er­a­tion, and where the data that is col­lected is un­der tight con­trol in terms of how it is col­lected and who can ac­cess it,” McKenna said.

She said “none of that is present” in the Bal­ti­more pro­gram — at least as far as the pub­lic and elected of­fi­cials know.

Jim Bueer­mann, pres­i­dent of the Po­lice Foun­da­tion — which fa­cil­i­tated one of the grants that is fund­ing the sur­veil­lance pro­gram — said his or­ga­ni­za­tion will be re­view­ing the pro­gram’s ef­fec­tive­ness and the con­cerns sur­round­ing its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Bueer­mann said it is al­ways dif­fi­cult for a po­lice de­part­ment “at the front end of in­no­va­tion in polic­ing” to do ev­ery­thing cor­rectly the first time, but it can help pave the way for other agen­cies to get it right.

He said he be­lieves the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment’s “in­ten­tions are good,” and hopes his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s re­view will an­swer ques­tions, find so­lu­tions to spe­cific con­cerns and help the com­mu­nity heal.

“Us­ing a sys­tem that al­lows you to rewind video, see a ve­hi­cle flee­ing from the scene of a shoot­ing — a drive-by, let’s say — and fol­low it to a place in the­ory saves tax­payer money, might ap­pre­hend the per­son re­spon­si­ble, and ul­ti­mately, be­cause we know vi­o­lent crim­i­nals com­mit more than one crime, might save some­one’s life,” Bueer­mann said.

But he said there must be “is­sues of trans­parency, ac­count­abil­ity, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity — all of those things — wrapped up into that. And I can’t tell you whether all of that is go­ing on in Bal­ti­more or not.”

Anne McKenna, Penn State Uni­ver­sity

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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