An eye in Baltimore's sky: the story of a city under secret surveillance

The Baltimore Police Department, with the support of two wealthy Texan philanthropists, thought they had found an innovative solution to the city's crime problem: surveillance from the air. But their flawed implementation provides lessons about the importance of transparency and citizen engagement.

On 18 June 2015, the popular US public radio show, Radiolab, aired an episode about a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems and its "HawkEye" technology. Originally developed for use in the Iraq war, the company's camera array is mounted on the belly of an airplane and flown above a location for hours on end. The imagery can give analysts a bird's-eye view of an entire city and allows anyone's movements to be tracked.

Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, had for a while been trying to convince US police forces in crime-ridden cities to use - and pay for - his technology. Radiolab told the story of HawkEye's development in war zones, as well as the backlash that occurred after the exposure of its covert use in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. The programme also described what happened when police in Dayton, Ohio held public hearings about their proposed deployment of HawkEye. The programme was discontinued after a short nine-day trial run in Compton and never got off the ground in Dayton.

Baltimore-bound...

The Radiolab episode not only raised a few eyebrows among privacy advocates but also captured the imagination of Laura and John Arnold. The two Texan philanthropists offered McNutt to pay for the system's use, provided that he could find a city willing to use it. While the two donated the money in their private capacity this time, they also run the Laura and John Arnold Foundation which is engaged in similar endeavours in criminal justice. The Baltimore Police Department got on board and began using the system in January 2016.

There was only one problem: the Baltimore Police Department didn't tell anyone.

The deployment of the surveillance system was not announced to citizens, and public approval was never sought. It was first disclosed by a Bloomberg Businessweek article published at the end of August, more than six months after the surveillance plane started flying over Baltimore. Even the city's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says that she had not been briefed on the initiative before it began. The only people who decided on the total surveillance of an entire city were the Baltimore Police Department and the Arnolds.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on 30 August, Laura Arnold said that she and her husband "trust local actors to make those decisions. We don't say you have to do it one way or another." It is unclear what led the Arnolds to believe a police department not known for holding civil liberties in high regard should be trusted blindly with a borderline totalitarian surveillance technology.

The US Justice Department concluded in its recent investigation that the Baltimore Police Department had engaged in "making unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests", "using excessive force", and using enforcement strategies that discriminate against African Americans. One could be forgiven for having second thoughts about whether the Baltimore Police Department should be trusted with a surveillance system that can track anyone's movements in the city, with no oversight mechanism of any kind.

Critics pounce

After the Bloomberg Businessweek article revealed the existence of the system, there was sharp criticism of the surveillance methods from civil liberties advocates, the state's public defender, and state delegates - a reaction which should have surprised none of those involved. The technology's extraordinarily controversial nature had, after all, been well documented in the very radio episode that sparked the Arnolds' interest.

As the private funders and critical enablers of the initiative, the Arnolds share the moral burden here. With political and financial power come responsibility and accountability. At a an absolute minimum, the Arnolds should have made their funding contingent on the Police Department's plans being made public.

Laura Arnold was also quoted in the Baltimore Sun interview as saying the debate that resulted from the disclosure was "healthy" and that they did not have "a position as to whether or not Baltimore should use" the technology. Healthy debates on such matters, however, happen ahead of time, not after the fact. When, or if at all, this debate would have happened without journalists investigating, is also at best unclear.

Lessons to learn

Whether this technology can effectively reduce crime is beside the point. In order to achieve lasting impact, governments need more than just effective policies. Having policies which are seen as legitimate is just as relevant. There are a great number of measures governments could deploy to achieve "results", but which societies have decided not to touch. Or, in President Obama's words, "just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should do it".

The results-oriented approach that the Arnolds and their foundation advocate for is promising, as is the open-minded consideration and rigorous testing of different policy options that goes with it. But by allowing the Baltimore Police Department to use a highly controversial surveillance technology without public consultation, they have done their cause a lasting disservice. The backlash over HawkEye is a harsh reminder why having an exciting "innovation" or "solution" is never enough. Public administrations - and the private philanthropists that influence them - need to win the argument with citizens first.