Last week, Bloomberg uncovered a secret surveillance program that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has been testing since January. Without notifying any elected officials or members of the public, the police outfitted small planes with video cameras to surveil wide swathes of the city and compiled the data – ten terabytes a week – into a “searchable, constantly updating photographic map that was stored on hard drives.”
The revelations would be disturbing enough without this additional fact: the enterprise was entirely funded by private money. Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private Ohio-based firm, operated the program in Baltimore using private donations from two Texas billionaires. The donation was made to the Baltimore Community Foundation, which then transferred the money to the Baltimore Police Foundation Special Projects Fund – a pot of money usually spent on community outreach. It seems the BPD was able to evade the budget oversight process by using this fund instead of appropriated public money.
The response from the BPD, of course, is that citizens with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But coming from a department under federal investigation for gross violations of constitutional rights and a history of racist policing, this is less than comforting. Not to mention the potential for abuse by rogue and roguish members of the force. After all, NSA employees were known to spy on targets of affection, not just targets of the state. What would keep BPD employees from doing the same?
This episode is illuminating for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates the danger to privacy that the public faces from private actors, not just the government. Many civil libertarians are hyper-attuned to abuses by the state, but give private firms a pass. But in a time where a billionaire can effectively shut down a blog he doesn’t like and the billionaire running for president suggests that First Amendment rights for members of the press are too expansive, we should be wary of the power that comes with concentrated wealth. If a rich philanthropist decides that expanded public surveillance is a cause they’d like to take up, then clearly we need better safeguards than the ones we have now. Moreover, as the NSA spying scandal demonstrated, privately collected data can all too easily be bent to public uses. Even now, our WiFi routers can identify a person entering a room and read their lips with startling accuracy. Just this week, the federal government began allowing private citizens to apply for commercial drone licenses. We simply are not having the conversations we should be having around private data collection.
Second, the Baltimore surveillance program demonstrates the folly of relying on technology to solve problems created by technology. One of the main solutions that advocates against police brutality propose are body cameras for police officers. But a proliferation of cameras on police officers or in police cruisers is no panacea. One study of the Chicago Police Department found that dashboard cameras lacked audio 80 percent of the time, which officials attributed to “errors” (many intentional). And there is a patchwork of regulations around who can access footage and how long the footage must be preserved, regulations that often favor those in power instead of the public. Not to mention, perhaps private citizens should consider the negative effects of having their every interaction with law enforcement, even just being in close proximity to an officer, recorded for government review. Our challenges are both human-scale and institutional, and more surveillance won’t prevent misdeeds.
Finally, the BPD’s secret program reveals the ongoing danger to our society posed by the military-intelligence-industrial complex, often referred to as the “deep state.” Private defense and security contractors, federal intelligence agencies and military branches, and state and local police forces often act with impunity and outside of public scrutiny. The BPD’s disregard for the civilians duly elected to oversee them is nothing new. The technology and hardware that your tax dollars support – from the NSA’s PRISM program (headquartered 20 miles outside of Baltimore), to armored vehicles and death robots, to the program used by the BPD – were first developed for use in conflicts overseas. Now they have come to our backyard.