By Adam Johnson. This article was first published on AlterNet
Photo Credit: futureatlas.com/Flickr Creative Commons
Over the past few years, billionaires have unilaterally shut down a popular newsite, pushed common core on the Department of Education and steered candidates to a hardline position on Israel. Now one Texas-based billionaire (who began amassing his fortune at Enron) has singlehandedly spearheaded a massive spying program—secret until now—in a city 1500 miles away from where he lives.
John Arnold used his foundation to funnel $120,000 for an aerial surveillance program into a police charity, the Baltimore Community Foundation, which covered the costs for the department. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, which broke the story earlier this week, the program was not revealed to Baltimore citizens, and because it was funded by monies outside the normal channels of oversight, it did not need typical approval from elected city officials.
The surveillance program, implemented by Persistent Surveillance System’s Ross McNutt, involved a near-total visual surveillance of the population using a combination of on-the-ground cameras and cameras attached to a permanently rolling fleet of Cessna planes. The effort began last year when John Arnold heard a piece on the public radio program RadioLab featuring the technology, which was originally used in Iraq during the surge.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation told McNutt 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 had 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’ foundation donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation.
It’s unclear how Baltimore could be “ready and willing” when the public wasn’t informed. What McNutt appears to mean is that the Baltimore Police Department was ready and would not seek public discussion.
While initial reports did not explore the racial component, it cannot be ignored. McNutt’s “post-Freddie Gray” remark carries with it racial implications, namely that the monitoring tool might be used to control protests or unrest in addition to preventing crime. Arnold, who is white, is using his tremendous power and wealth to treat a predominately black city as a guinea pig in his crime prevention trial raises questions of undue influence and the circumvention of normal, local democratic processes. The democratically elected body that would normally need to approve such a measure, the Baltimore Board of Estimates, is currently 60 percent African American. The foundation that served as the conduit between Arnold and the department is not sanctioned by voters and according to its spokesperson didn’t even “know what the money was for.” If true, this would rest the oversight of the program entirely on the shoulders of the hedge fund billionaire who was paying for it and the Baltimore Police Department that managed it.
No doubt anticipating bad press, the Baltimore Sun ran a glowing puff piece on the Arnolds Friday, showcasing the charitable work they do in Maryland. John Arnold is also a major backer of charter schools, a movement heavily favored by the hedge fund industry. He has also spent a considerable amount of time and money pushing so-called pension reform, a long-term project also supported by many in the hedge fund industry.
With the expansion of police body cameras and surveillance in general, the ways in which monitoring can also help prevent police violence are at the center of this controversy. Power asymmetry can affect what cameras record and prioritize, and typically works in favor of those who control the technology.
“This whole city is under a siege of cameras,” Baltimore resident Ralph Pritchett told Bloomberg Businessweek in its report. “In fact, they observed Freddie Gray himself the morning of his arrest on those cameras, before they picked him up. They could have watched that van, too, but no—they missed that one. I thought the cameras were supposed to protect us. But I’m thinking they’re there to just contradict anything that might be used against the city of Baltimore. Do they use them for justice? Evidently not.”