Baltimore police respond to report they secretly spied on city with aerial surveillance tech from Iraq War

A report out this week from Bloomberg says that since January, 2016, people in the city of Baltimore, Maryland have secretly and periodically been spied on by police using cameras in the sky. Authorities today effectively admitted that the report is accurate.

In response to Tuesday's Bloomberg article, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith today said not to worry unless you're a "criminal," and that the flights by a specially equipped spy plane were "effectively, a mobile citywide camera."

In a feature released on Tuesday, Bloomberg Businesweek reported that police in the mostly black city used a Cessna airplane carrying an ultra-wide-angle camera array developed for use during the Iraq War. The police surveillance flights spent hours flying overhead, sending footage back to massive hard drives.

Monte Reel's report for Bloomberg begins outside the Baltimore courthouse where 'not guilty, all counts' messages were popping up on reporters' phones, in the Freddie Gray death by police case.

A bystander, Ralph Pritchett Sr., tells the Bloomberg reporter that "This whole city is under a siege of cameras," and that he believes authorities have had video of the 'rough ride' after which Gray died.

Photo: Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photo: Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek

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."

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.

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.

"As technology permits it, we're seeing systems that seek to watch everybody all the time," Jay Stanley of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project wrote at the ACLU blog. "This is a giant leap into a real Big Brother future."

Today, the Baltimore Police Department held a press conference. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement around the same time. Video is below.

Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith began the Wednesday press conference by saying the program was "not an unmanned drone or a secret surveillance 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 CitiWatch camera. What we gain with this is size, so we see a larger area than we would see with a CitiWatch camera, but what we lose is the clarity that we get from a CitiWatch camera, which is on the ground."


"I was recently made aware of the Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. work with our city," Mayor Rawlings-Blake said on Wednesday to reporters.

"The pilot program, funded by an anonymous donor, is cutting edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer. My top priority, which I have continuously communicated to Commissioner Davis, has been to keep our city safe. His team sought opportunities to find new technology that works hand in hand with our robust Citiwatch program. This technology is about public safety. This isn't surveilling or tracking anyone. It's about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city."

Related reporting:

In Baltimore, the police and a private company are running surveillance flights like never before [Washington Post]

Report of secret aerial surveillance by Baltimore police prompts questions, outrage [Baltimore Sun]