Police in Baltimore testing privately funded 30 square mile continuous image surveillance

“Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability,” was the pitch. At 92.8 square miles, Baltimore is Maryland’s largest city. When the weather is clear, roughly 30 square miles, approximately one-third of the city, may be under continuous camera surveillance with a program originally developed for military applications. And now the watchdog tech is undergoing a trial with the Baltimore Police Department, according to Bloomberg.

Developed by Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), a Dayton, Ohio company, the program has been running in Baltimore since January 2016. PSS founder Ross McNutt originally designed the system for the military to help figure out who was planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq. The Baltimore aerial monitoring program is privately funded by a couple from Texas who donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation.

A single-engine Cessna flies over Baltimore for as much as 10 hours a day. The plane carries an array of six wide-angle cameras that take high-resolution images at a rate of one per second. The individual camera images are stitched together to form 192-megapixel images that are continuously transmitted to the ground, where they are stored and archived.

On the ground, six analysts hired by Persistent Surveillance Systems have been trained to track vehicles or people forward or backward in time. They start from a crime incident location to see where the suspects came from and where they headed after the incident. Individuals on the ground cannot be identified, as each is only represented by a few pixels. When used in conjunction with the BPD’s more than 700 street-level video camera feeds, however, police investigators can use the location and movement tracking data from the analysts to aid in their sleuthing.

Each day, the PSS group receives a printed list of crimes logged during the previous day. A former Baltimore police officer is employed to check the list for crimes with which the analysts might be able to help, from property theft to shootings.

According to Bloomberg, the Baltimore Police Department has not publicly disclosed the aerial surveillance system, while the BPD declined to comment. “The city was already on the defensive, even as the aerial surveillance program was shielded from the public eye,” Bloomberg reported.

A U.S. Department of Justice report released earlier this month claimed abuses within the BPD including unlawful stops and the use of excessive force targeting poor and minority communities. A civil rights group complained to the FCC about the use of Stingray cell tower simulators without warrants, claiming “The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore.”


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