The relationship between those who are constantly watched and tracked, and those who watch and track them, is the relationship between masters and slaves.
– Chris Hedges, from the post Video of the Day – Chris Hedges on Overthrowing the Corporate Fascist State
Yesterday, Bloomberg published a lengthy expose on a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, which has been secretly surveilling the people of Baltimore on behalf of the police since January.
The article is titled, Secret Cameras Record Baltimore’s Every Move From Above, and here are some choice excerpts:
Pritchett had no idea that as he spoke, a small Cessna airplane equipped with a sophisticated array of cameras was circling Baltimore at roughly the same altitude as the massing clouds. The plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground. The footage from the plane was instantly archived and stored on massive hard drives, allowing analysts to review it weeks later if necessary.
Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department had been using the plane to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings. The Cessna sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.
Are we citizens, or are we subjects? I think the answer is obvious.
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton, Ohio, provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made.
Outside the courthouse, several of the protesters began marching around the building, chanting for justice. The plane continued to circle overhead, unseen…
A half block from the city’s central police station, in a spare office suite above a parking garage, Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, monitored the city’s reaction to the Goodson verdict by staring at a bank of computer monitors. “It’s pretty quiet out there,” he said. The riots that convulsed the city after Gray was killed wouldn’t be repeated. “A few protesters on the corner, and not much else. The police want us to keep flying, but the clouds are getting in the way.”
McNutt is an Air Force Academy graduate, physicist, and MIT-trained astronautical engineer who in 2004 founded the Air Force’s Center for Rapid Product Development. The Pentagon asked him if he could develop something to figure out who was planting the roadside bombs that were killing and maiming American soldiers in Iraq. In 2006 he gave the military Angel Fire, a wide-area, live-feed surveillance system that could cast an unblinking eye on an entire city.
So war technology coming home to roost without any public debate whatsoever. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Recall:
The system was built around an assembly of four to six commercially available industrial imaging cameras, synchronized and positioned at different angles, then attached to the bottom of a plane. As the plane flew, computers stabilized the images from the cameras, stitched them together and transmitted them to the ground at a rate of one per second. This produced a searchable, constantly updating photographic map that was stored on hard drives. His elevator pitch was irresistible: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”
McNutt retired from the military in 2007 and modified the technology for commercial development, increasing the number of cameras in the assembly to 12 and making the apparatus lighter and cheaper. He began attending security trade shows to fish for clients. His first real customer approached him at a security expo in Miami. His name was José Reyes Ferriz, and he was the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, in northern Mexico. In 2009 a war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels had turned his border town into the most deadly city on earth.
For the next couple of years, Persistent Surveillance survived by providing services such as traffic-flow analysis for municipal planners, wildlife monitoring and border surveillance for federal agencies, and security monitoring for single events ranging from the Brickyard 400 Nascar race to Ohio State University football games. The company also did short-term projects in six countries, including in Central America and Africa, but the nature of that work is confidential, protected by nondisclosure agreements. The combination of those projects earned Persistent Surveillance about $3 million to $4 million a year in revenue, according to McNutt.
I’m sure the “nature of that work” was purely humanitarian.
A single, long-term contract with an American police department would be worth about $2 million a year, he says. By 2012, McNutt was approaching the police departments of the 20 most crime-ridden jurisdictions in the country, marketing his services. He floated several of them an offer: Let us fly over your city to show you what we can do, and then you can decide if you want to hire us.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department quietly took him up on the offer, allowing him to conduct a nine-day trial run over Compton, a largely minority city south of L.A., in 2012. According to Patrick Bearse, operations lieutenant for the Aero Bureau of the sheriff’s department, the county recognized the potential of Persistent Surveillance’s service, but it didn’t sign a contract with the company because the technology, particularly the quality of the images, didn’t meet the department’s expectations. The city’s residents didn’t find out about the flights until a year later. Angry protesters demanded a new “citizen privacy protection policy” from local leaders, but even those leaders—from the mayor on down—hadn’t been told about the test program. “There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown told the Los Angeles Times.
The next city to try McNutt’s technology was his home base of Dayton. After the L.A. County trial, he improved the system by more than doubling the resolution, to 192 megapixels, increased the archive’s storage capacity, and sped up the image processing to allow analysts to conduct multiple investigations simultaneously. The Dayton police department and the city council were sold on it, and they aired the idea for a contract at a series of public hearings. Joel Pruce, who teaches human rights studies at the University of Dayton, helped organize the opposition. To the objecting residents, it seemed as if it hadn’t occurred to city leaders that the surveillance program might be interpreted as a violation of some vital, unspoken trust. “At the hearings, nobody spoke in favor of it except for the people working for the city,” Pruce recalls. “The black community, in particular, said, ‘We’ve seen this type of thing before. This will target us, and you didn’t even come to us beforehand to see how we’d feel about it.’ ” Dayton’s city leaders dropped their attempts to hire the company after those hearings.
Unsurprisingly, Baltimore didn’t bother to consult the public.
Last year the public radio program Radiolab featured Persistent Surveillance in a segment about the tricky balance between security and privacy. Shortly after that, McNutt got an e-mail on behalf of Texas-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold. John is a former Enron trader whose hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, made billions before he retired in 2012. Since then, the Arnolds have funded a variety of hot-button causes, including advocating for public pension rollbacks and charter schools. The Arnolds told McNutt that if he could find a city that would allow the company to fly for several months, they would donate the money to keep the plane in the air. McNutt had met the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s ground-based camera system on the trade-show circuit, and they’d become friendly. “We settled in on Baltimore because it was ready, it was willing, and it was just post-Freddie Gray,” McNutt says. The Arnolds donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit that administers donations to a wide range of local civic causes.
Almost everything about the surveillance program feels hush-hush; the city hasn’t yet acknowledged its existence, and the police department declined requests for interviews about the program. On Aug. 10 the U.S. Department of Justice released a 163-page report that detailed systemic abuses within the Baltimore Police Department, including unlawful stops and the use of excessive force, that disproportionately targeted poor and minority communities and led to “unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members.” Within a week, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission claiming that the department’s warrantless use of cell phone tower simulators known by the trade name StingRay—an activity the police acknowledged last year in court—violated federal law and targeted minorities. “The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore,” the complaint stated. The city was already on the defensive, even as the aerial surveillance program was shielded from the public eye.
McNutt prides himself on being a student of efficiencies. In the airport residence hotel where he’s been living since January, he keeps a closet of cargo pants and identical black polos—a uniform that saves him the trouble of choosing what to wear each day. His goatee is a recent experiment to see if he can cut grooming time by limiting the surface area he shaves (results are pending; tending to the edge work, he’s discovered, takes time). And in 2014, when he was strategizing how he might best silence the sort of criticism he’d attracted in Compton and Dayton, McNutt attempted to save time and trouble by directly approaching the ACLU, the organization he figured would be most likely to challenge his system on privacy grounds.
He visited the ACLU’s headquarters in Washington, and in the office of Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst and privacy expert, McNutt explained why his cameras weren’t a threat. The aerial images couldn’t identify specific people, because the target resolution would be limited to one pixel per person. The analysts zoomed in on specific areas only in response to specific crimes reported to the police. To further ensure that his employees weren’t spying on random people or addresses, everything they did was logged and saved—every keystroke and every address they zoomed in to for a closer look. Vehicles would be tracked only over public roads in areas where people have no expectation of privacy.
Stanley heard McNutt out and thanked him for taking the initiative to seek the ACLU’s feedback. But McNutt’s presentation shocked him to the core. As he listened to his visitor describe the type of surveillance the company was capable of doing, Stanley felt as if he were witnessing America’s privacy-vs.-security debate move into uncharted territory.
“My reaction was ‘OK, this is it,’ ” Stanley recalls. “I said to myself, ‘This is where the rubber hits the road. The technology has finally arrived, and Big Brother, which everyone has always talked about, is finally here.’ ”
The meeting took place before McNutt’s work with Baltimore was arranged, and Stanley knew other companies were beginning to work in the same general field. For example, the creators of Constant Hawk, a system that had competed for military adoption with McNutt’s Angel Fire, started a company called Logos Technologies, which provides wide-area motion cameras to organizations that can mount them to aircraft and analyze the images. (“We sell the diamond, and someone else has to mount it in the ring,” company spokesman Erik Schechter says.) This year, Logos landed its first nonmilitary contract, partnering with a Brazilian company called Altave to provide aerial monitoring of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, via blimplike aerostats floating above the city. As the sector continues to mature, Stanley predicts that more companies will enter the marketplace, and each will try to one-up the other to please law enforcement agencies, creating more flexible—and more intrusive—camera and tracking systems. The Supreme Court decisions that McNutt cited, he says, might not apply. The previous court rulings didn’t take into consideration the constancy of these systems: It’s true that anyone might be able to see into someone’s fenced-in backyard from a passing plane, but was it reasonable to argue that anyone could follow a person’s movements across a city for hours at a time? To Stanley, these are open questions.
McNutt says he’s sure his system can withstand a public unveiling and that the more people know about what his cameras can—and can’t—do, the fewer worries they’ll have. But the police ultimately decide who and what should be tracked. In a city that’s struggled to convince residents that its police can be trusted, the arguments are now Baltimore’s to make.
Actually, the authorities in Baltimore aren’t interested in making any argument. They’re interested in doing whatever the heck they want. As today’s followup article from Bloomberg makes perfectly clear:
The Baltimore Police Department on Wednesday acknowledged testing aerial surveillance technology over the city since January and defended the previously undisclosed program against critics. A police spokesman said the aerial surveillance program would continue for at least a few more weeks.
Following a Bloomberg Businessweek report about the program published on Tuesday, several civil liberties groups expressed outrage over the surveillance, which is conducted by a private company based in Dayton, Ohio, called Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. The national office of the ACLU in Washington issued a statement saying the program shouldn’t have been launched without a public debate.
“It continues to be stunning that American police forces feel that they can use deeply radical and controversial surveillance systems, which raise the most profound questions about our society and its values, without telling the public that will be subject to these technologies—the public they are supposed to be serving,” wrote Jay Stanley, a privacy expert and policy analyst for the group. Maryland’s public defender, Paul DeWolfe, issued a statement saying that “it is particularly troubling that the [Baltimore Police Department] continues to lack any transparency regarding its technology acquisitions and practices,” particularly after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a 163-page report earlier this month concluding that Baltimore police repeatedly violated citizens’ civil rights.
The police will continue conducting surveillance flights for a few weeks, Smith said, and will then evaluate whether to continue with the flights and pursue more funding for them.
Ask yourself again. Are we citizens or are we slaves?
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