Baltimore Police Defend Secret Surveillance Program
Officials would not say why a private company using a plane to track city residents was hired and funded outside public purview
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham, reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. We have just learned that Baltimore City residents were the target of a secret surveillance program that has been running for over eight months. With airplanes circling Baltimore ten hours a day. The program was also secretly funded by an anonymous donor.
But more important to privacy advocates is the fact that the program was run behind closed doors, outside public scrutiny, which is why we spoke to Baltimore police officials and the ACLU.
T.J. SMITH: What we’re talking about here is not an unmanned drone or a secret surveillance program. Some of the headlines of secret surveillance is irresponsible and purposely inflammatory, and that is inconsistent with the reality and the facts of this program.
This is a 21st-century investigative tool used to assist investigators in solving crimes. The wide area imagery system allows for the capability of seeing 32 square miles. This effectively is a mobile citywatch camera. What we gain with this is size. So we see a larger area than we would see with a citywatch camera. But what we lose is the clarity that we get from the citywatch camera, which is on the ground. This program aids in our ability to identify those responsible for crime.
This began in January of 2016 as part of a trial on, for lack of a pun, I won’t use the word pilot program. And we received funds from an anonymous donor which allowed us to utilize the program during January and part of February. Conditions have to be optimal for the plane to fly. So this initial phase was about 100 hours, and on bad days, rainy days, et cetera, we couldn’t use the services. So we were basically contracted with 100 hours, and that went into the month of February.
This acts as a force multiplier. The plane goes where the calls for service are and has the capability of scanning that much larger area than the city block which, again, is the limitation of the citywatch cameras. The Baltimore community support program is an additional tool used as a resource when investigating crimes, and it works with our over 700 citywatch cameras.
GRAHAM: Stephen, can you tell us what we heard at the press conference today?
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Well, kind of an astounding press conference, because this program was completely secret. And I think T.J. Smith, who is the department spokesman, faced a lot of questions about why this was hidden from the public.
Just so people understand, even things that are funded by nonprofits or things that are funded by taxpayers go through something called the Board of Estimates, which is the city spending board, which approves it. But this was sort of the money came through a charity called the Baltimore Foundation, and was paid for anonymously. So this program is basically completely outside any public purview.
And that became the focus of the press conference. Because people were saying, the Baltimore Police Department, has said they’re going to be more transparent. They have just been under scathing, or just been the subject of a scathing Justice Department report, which basically said they did this kind of stuff. Which was, one of their biggest problems was transparency. The disciplinary process and other aspects of the police department were completely shielded from the public.
So what we saw was a very defensive T.J. Smith trying to explain to people why this was done completely, completely in secret.
SMITH: I think people want this to be a secret when it’s not, and when you get anonymous donations of citizens wanting to help, and they happen to be wealthy citizens, and we’re able to have direct funds for the police department’s purposes as opposed to the general fund, we look to take advantage of those opportunities.
GRAHAM: Were there any checks and balances in play to protect the privacy of individual residents, or even protesters?
JANIS: Well, basically what he told us is this plane flew thus far 300 hours. About 5-10 hours a day for a certain number of days. But when he’s asked specifics about, you know, what happened, what investigations, what resulted in it, what he did, he didn’t have a very good answer. In fact, the information was unclear. Let’s go and listen to that.
ROSS MCNUTT: We do have the legal analysis that covers the program, that we are no different than any other airborne law enforcement organization camera system. There are four Supreme Court level decisions that cover this that deal with–one out of Florida, and one out of California specifically that were used to gather search warrants. One was in 1984, one was in 1986. those documents are there; they’ve been reviewed with the state’s attorney’s office for use of this information as evidence. And again, we appreciate the opportunity to be able to show and let the people of Baltimore and the police department evaluate the effectiveness of our system, the protections that we have for privacy, the steps that we’ve taken, which are very significant, and the efforts that we’ve gone to make sure that our privacy programs are well in place and well-executed, and we’re happy to share those with you.
SPEAKER: Mr. McNutt, who is paying for it? Who’s the donor?
MCNUTT: I’m not at liberty to say that. I can just tell you that it’s a wealthy individual who wants to make a difference in the community and support the people.
SPEAKER: It’s being used by a public agency.
MCNUTT: Yes, it is.
SPEAKER: So at the very least, can the citizens of Baltimore know who’s funding it?
MCNUTT: I’m just not at liberty to say that, just because I’ve been asked not to.
GRAHAM: Was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake aware of this program?
JANIS: That was a good question that was asked during the press conference. And again, T.J. Smith sort of punted on that one and did not tell people whether the mayor knew about this, or when the mayor knew about this. And Anthony McCarthy, who is the spokesman who was at the press conference, didn’t answer it either.
SPEAKER: Was she aware when this started?
SMITH: She was–you can speak to the mayor’s office, and you can speak to–.
SPEAKER: Had the police department informed the mayor that this program was beginning?
SMITH: As we said before, as we consistently go out and look at opportunities to stop the killing in Baltimore, and track down those that choose to kill in Baltimore. We’re going to stop at nothing, and we have the support of the mayor to do that.
GRAHAM: Now, Baltimore City residents are already under a lot of surveillance. Can you tell us about the scope of surveillance in Baltimore City?
JANIS: Well, you know, we already have a citywatch camera system, which T.J. talked about as somewhere between 700-1,000 cameras. When I was a reporter for City Paper almost 12 years ago I did a story about the citywatch program, and it is byzantine, to say the least. It is very hard to figure out what cameras are where, which cameras are actually owned by the city, and which cameras are private. So you have cameras all over the place.
And then as T.J. pointed out, or was questioned about, we already have foxtrot helicopters that fly over the city constantly surveilling. We have some surveillance footage that they took of protesters. And that’s one of the things we asked them. We said, have you been using this to monitor protesters? They denied it.
But here’s the problem with this whole concept: this is absolutely private. This is something that really is owned by a public company. But it’s mixing with the public process of policing. There’s no way for us to better know what they do. They can tell us whatever they want. And that’s why we spoke to the ACLU. Let’s go to that interview. We talked to someone at the ACLU about these privacy concerns specifically raised by this secret program.
I thought it was fascinating in the article that you talked to the owner of this company and he sort of went to you to I guess sort of ease the knowledge of this news for a secret surveillance. But your reaction was kind of really fascinating. Tell me how you felt when he told you about this new surveillance we’re doing in Baltimore.
JAY STANLEY: Yes, I saw him giving his presentation at a conference on drones actually in Florida. And he saw the ACLU and my nametag and approached me and said I’d like to talk to you about this. And so he came to my office in Washington and kind of gave me his pitch about how the technology works and various reasons why we [shouldn’t] be too concerned about it from a surveillance perspective. None of those arguments that he made were especially persuasive to me. Especially over the long term. Certainly was glad to hear that he was thinking about privacy and that there were certain limitations on the technology.
But its cold comfort knowing that this technology is coming down the pike. And it’s not just about his company. It’s not just about this one company. It’s about a whole industry. The major aerospace companies are looking to get into this field. And so you know we have to worry about where it’s going to evolve in a very fast moving technological environment.
JANIS: In terms of the fourth amendment and in terms of the right to privacy what specifically does this technology–what concerns does it raise for you specifically regarding what we expect to have some right to privacy?
STANLEY: You know I think that the fourth amendment in the constitution protects us from unreasonable searches, protects our privacy, and it’s very unclear how the courts will interpret this kind of technology. On the one hand traditionally in public when you’re in public whoever’s with you in public can obviously see who you are. The courts have ruled that you don’t have privacy protection from aerial photography. There’s a guy whose backyard was photographed by a plane. They found marijuana plants there. They didn’t have a warrant and they took it all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said no you don’t have privacy from aerial surveillance.
But the court in that case and in other cases never really contemplated constant 24/7 extended monitoring. If the police had put like a blimp over that guy’s yard that looked down and videotaped it 24/7 the case might have come out very differently. And so this whole question of do we have privacy in public is a very unresolved one constitutionally and also in terms of what the American public wants to do. We have of course when you’re standing on the street corner, a police officer or anyone in your line of sight can see you but you don’t expect that you’re followed as you go throughout your town or city, as you go throughout your day that somebody’s following you every day all day. And if somebody were following you you’d probably try and get a restraining order. And yet that’s what this technology can do.
So just like with GPS, with cell phone tracking. So the courts have just begun to struggle with this. There was a GPS case where the government put the tracker on a guy for 28 days without a warrant and they said well he was in public. And the court said well no this was a search under the fourth amendment because it’s so extended and really so intrusive in a way that’s never been possible before in human history.
JANIS: Well you said in the article and you kind of said you felt this was a dystopian future of maybe 1984, coming to life. Are we looking at a dystopian future where we can just be monitored at all times without any sort of checks and balances? Is this like the first step in that direction?
STANLEY: You know I use the term big brother surveillance. And I hate to use that term, it’s such a cliché. But I think that this kind of technology does justify it. And we are living in an age where it’s now technologically possible to carry out surveillance of like nightmarish levels. Like from the book 1984 and even more extreme.
So it’s not the technology that’s holding us back anymore. It’s our policies. It’s our democratic political system. It’s oversight by the press. It’s protestors rising up and saying no we don’t want to be subject to this. So I think that we’re going to be seeing because all of the things that technology is making possible, we’re going to be seeing battles.
Do we want to let government us this power? Do we not want let the government use this power? And people will disagree on that. But I think everybody should agree that those decisions should be made publicly and democratically. And that can’t happen if police departments and government agencies just try and engage in [a land grab] in secret and just create new facts on the ground instead of these technologies without telling, let alone asking the public that they’re supposed to be serving.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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