Aerial video could be sold

Sur­veil­lance com­pany weighs of­fer­ing data to pri­vate clients

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor

As the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment con­sid­ers whether to con­tinue us­ing a pri­vate aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram to fight crime, the man who owns the tech­nol­ogy is look­ing to court other clients in pri­vate in­dus­try.

Ross McNutt, pres­i­dent of Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, said he is con­sid­er­ing mar­ket­ing his com­pany’s abil­ity to col­lect aerial footage of the city to auto in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, to help them de­ter­mine which drivers are at fault in ac­ci­dents and whether claims are valid.

Be­yond shoot­ings and other vi­o­lent crime, McNutt’s cam­eras have captured be­tween 60 and 70 car ac­ci­dents per day in re­cent months, he said. At any given time, the sys­tem can record what’s hap­pen­ing over 32 square miles.

“You’re look­ing at peo­ple who caused ac­ci­dents, who are not a very sym­pa­thetic group,” McNutt said in an in­ter­view. “It’s not peo­ple who ac­ci­den­tally rear-end some­body, it’s peo­ple who have run three or four red lights and T-boned some­body and

put them in the hos­pi­tal.”

The prospect of the footage be­ing sold, how­ever, is rais­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns among the same civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates, sur­veil­lance law ex­perts and public de­fend­ers al­ready wary of the Po­lice De­part­ment’s use of the sys­tem. They say pri­vate clients would be bound by fewer con­sti­tu­tional re­stric­tions — in­clud­ing those against un­rea­son­able searches and seizures — than the Po­lice De­part­ment.

“How does the public feel about per­sis­tent sur­veil­lance when it’s avail­able to the high­est bid­der?” said Anne McKenna, a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of law at Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity and a le­gal con­sul­tant to the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice on aerial sur­veil­lance is­sues. “Now we re­ally have po­ten­tial for mis­use, be­cause what if your po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent wants to know where you are at all times?”

McNutt’s com­pany con­ducted more than 300 hours of sur­veil­lance be­tween Jan­uary and July in a pi­lot pro­gram on be­half of the Po­lice De­part­ment. Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, prose­cu­tors, public de­fend­ers and other elected of­fi­cials crit­i­cized po­lice for not in­form­ing them of the pro­gram.

Po­lice of­fi­cials said Fri­day that the plane will be back in the air this com­ing week for Mary­land Fleet Week and Air Show and the Bal­ti­more Run­ning Fes­ti­val, and that they will as­sess whether to con­tinue the pro­gram af­ter­ward.

McNutt stressed that he hasn’t signed any deals to track col­li­sions. But as the use of his tech­nol­ogy by the Po­lice De­part­ment has come un­der in­tense scru­tiny, he said he’s plan­ning ahead.

“We will sur­vive no mat­ter what,” he said this week, in the midst of prepa­ra­tions for an­other in­sur­ance-re­lated job: fly­ing up and down the East Coast to con­duct sur­veys be­fore and af­ter Hur­ri­cane Matthew blows through. He said his in­sur­ance clients can use that in­for­ma­tion to pin­point lo­ca­tions where storm da­m­age is ex­ten­sive.

McNutt said his sur­veil­lance com­pany al­ready does $3 mil­lion to $4 mil­lion in pri­vate busi­ness a year.

McNutt, who de­clined to com­ment on the po­lice pro­gram, stressed that he has a strict pri­vacy pol­icy — which he has no plans to aban­don if he lands new com­mer­cial clients.

The com­pany pol­icy states that sur­veil­lance “will be con­ducted in a pro­fes­sional, eth­i­cal and le­gal man­ner.” It also says that the tech­nol­ogy will not be used “to in­vade the pri­vacy of in­di­vid­u­als, to look into pri­vate ar­eas or ar­eas where the rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy ex­ists.”

Given the in­tense scru­tiny of his com­pany, McNutt said it would not be in his best in­ter­est to vi­o­late that pol­icy. “I have an in­ter­nal in­cen­tive to hold to my pri­vacy pol­icy,” he said.

Along with Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cials, McNutt has stressed that the cam­eras he uses only pro­duce low-res­o­lu­tion im­ages, ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing po­lice with the abil­ity to track in­di­vid­u­als and mo­torists through the city, but not to iden­tify those in­di­vid­u­als. He has also said he is eager to co­op­er­ate with any public of­fi­cial — the po­lice, public de­fend­ers or prose­cu­tors.

Crit­ics say McNutt’s plan to pitch his tech­nol­ogy to com­mer­cial clients raises red flags.

McKenna said she would be con­cerned about a pri­vate com­pany selling sur­veil­lance footage to an­other pri­vate com­pany. She said McNutt would have a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to re­lax his pri­vacy pol­icy, be­cause less-re­stricted ac­cess to the footage and higher-res­o­lu­tion im­ages would likely fetch higher bids.

Even if McNutt sticks to his pol­icy, she said, oth­ers could come along us­ing his busi­ness model and of­fer footage with no such pri­vacy pro­tec­tions in place.

“If this guy gets to do it, why can’t ev­ery­body just get a plane and fly over top and sell the data?” she said.

David Rocah, a staff at­tor­ney with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Mary­land, said pri­vate use of mass sur­veil­lance footage would be “a man­i­fes­ta­tion of a much larger prob­lem, of pri­vate ac­tors, typ­i­cally cor­po­rate ac­tors, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing vast amounts of data about us and then mon­e­tiz­ing that data.”

Phone and in­ter­net com­pa­nies do it reg­u­larly, he said, but those com­pa­nies typ­i­cally col­lect data “through some trans­ac­tion that we are in­volved in with them,” such as sign­ing a us­age con­tract with a mo­bile car­rier or log­ging into Google to use its search en­gine.

With McNutt’s pro­posal, “you can’t opt out in any way,” he said. “We should have a right not to have all of our move­ments ac­cu­mu­lated, dig­i­tized and mon­e­tized.”

The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quires pi­lots fly­ing over Bal­ti­more to be at least 1,000 feet above the ground and to be in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with air traf­fic con­trol be­cause of the city’s prox­im­ity to BWI Thur­good Mar­shall Air­port.

“The FAA does not reg­u­late the length of time that an air­craft can over­fly an area or the pur­pose of a flight,” the agency said in a state­ment.

Dan Ko­brin, one of sev­eral as­sis­tant public de­fend­ers who re­cently met with McNutt about the po­lice sur­veil­lance pro­gram in Bal­ti­more, said that “there is no law in the Mary­land code, there is noth­ing in the city or­di­nances” that would pre­vent McNutt’s com­mer­cial ex­pan­sion. If the Po­lice De­part­ment “walks away and says, ‘We’re not go­ing to do it,’ ” Ko­brin said, “that’s his in­cen­tive to go out­side of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and say, ‘OK, Ge­ico, do you want to pay me?’ ”

Mary­land In­sur­ance Com­mis­sioner Al Red­mer Jr. said he is not aware of any ex­ist­ing in­sur­ance laws or reg­u­la­tions that would pre­vent an in­sur­ance car­rier from work­ing with McNutt. “In­sur­ance car­ri­ers are go­ing to do what they can do to try to get it right,” he said, “and with the ad­vent of new ideas and new tech­nolo­gies, we see all kinds of in­ter-

How does the public feel about per­sis­tent sur­veil­lance when it’s avail­able to the high­est bid­der?”

es­t­ing things.”

He said his agency mon­i­tors the in­sur­ance mar­ket, but it’s usu­ally leg­is­la­tors who lead ef­forts to change the law.

“If leg­is­la­tors learn of some­thing that in­sur­ance car­ri­ers are do­ing, and some­one doesn’t like it, then we all pack our bags, go to An­napo­lis, make our best case and try to get the leg­is­la­ture to outlaw what­ever it is we hap­pen to see,” he said.

In­sur­ance in­dus­try ob­servers said they are not fa­mil­iar with such sur­veil­lance sys­tems be­ing used by in­sur­ers.

Michael Barry, a spokesman at the in­dus­try-funded In­sur­ance In­for­ma­tion In­sti­tute, said sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy is be­ing used in the mar­ket — with drones.

“Many home in­sur­ers to­day are us­ing drones to as­sess da­m­age in hard-to-reach places, and they are even us­ing it for day-to-day work — for in­stance, if there is da­m­age on a roof,” Barry said.

Ko­brin en­vi­sioned a sce­nario in which a public de­fender would have a duty to re­view pri­vate footage to see if a crim­i­nal client could be cleared of a crime.

McNutt or his com­mer­cial com­peti­tor could re­spond to the public de­fender’s footage re­quest by say­ing, “Yes, for $200,000, you can have ac­cess to it,” Ko­brin said. “I won­der how the Gen­eral As­sem­bly would like it if we were forced to put out that kind of money just to do our job.”

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