If you live in Baltimore, you may have the feeling that you’re being watched. You are. Baltimore Police track your cellphone use without a warrant. They secretly film the entire city from the air. And as concerns about the uses and privacy implications of that next-generation surveillance tech have mounted, these domestic spying scandals also raise another question: Why Baltimore?
It turns out that Baltimore checks off all the requirements to build a modern American urban panopticon: High crime rates, racially biased policing, strained community-police relations, and lack of police oversight have turned Baltimore into a laboratory of emerging surveillance techniques.
On August 23, Bloomberg exposed the details of an aerial surveillance program that Baltimore Police have been using to track cars and criminal suspects. A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems has been flying a Cessna over the city throughout 2016, totaling 300 hours of recorded, real-time video.
Meanwhile, an April appeals court upheld a lower-court decision that BPD can’t use stingray devices—tools that surveil calls and track cell phones by impersonating cell towers—without a warrant. It had been a common practice for the department.
And on August 16, the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, and New America’s Open Technology Institute filed an FCC complaint alleging that BPD’s use of stingrays harms Baltimore’s citizens by causing interference on public radio spectrum without authorization. The complaint alleges that stingrays have been used so frequently that they reduce the availability of local cellular networks. “This interference with calls extends to emergency calls. In this way, these devices disrupt the cellular telephone network and emergency services,” the complaint reads. “Worse, the harms that stem from BPD’s use of CS simulator equipment fall disproportionately on Baltimore’s Black residents.”
The tech may be relatively new, but its targeted use isn’t. Historically, intelligence-gathering and law enforcement agencies have disproportionately surveilled minority communities across the United States-–from COINTELPRO’s targeting of the Black Panthers to the FBI wiretapping and blackmailing Martin Luther King. “Like many areas that are under heavy surveillance and like the other communities where aerial surveillance has been tested, Baltimore has a large black population,” says Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The use of surveillance technologies selectively on communities of color is a time-honored police practice.”
The controversy around surveillance programs in Baltimore coincides with a larger discussion about the quality of policing. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s arrest and death from injuries suffered in police custody in April, protests escalated into riots on April 27. The Department of Justice, which declined to comment for this story, published an extensive evaluation of BPD earlier this month detailing excessive force, racially biased policing, and unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests. Though the report doesn’t address persistent surveillance directly, its extensive reporting on BPD behavior “that violates the Constitution or federal law” hints at a police department that’s also willing to cross constitutional lines in the use of its growing surveillance toolkit. As the FCC complaint from last month notes, “Where BPD focuses its policing power, it also focuses its surveillance technology … and residents in targeted neighborhoods therefore suffer disproportionate harms.”
The report isn’t the only damning bit of evidence. The Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, for example, collects neighborhood-level data in Baltimore for an annual report called Vital Signs. In 2014, the overall arrest rate for Baltimore City was 48.7 arrests for every 1,000 residents. By comparing census data to arrest data, the report shows that neighborhoods with the highest arrest rates are mostly predominantly black residential areas, while neighborhoods with the lowest arrest rates are all predominantly white. “What we find is that there is a difference in the data around how certain neighborhoods are being policed just looking at the rate of arrests,” says Seema Iyer, the associate director of the Jacob France Institute.
That racially tense relationship between citizens and police in Baltimore may push police toward depersonalized, large-scale surveillance.
That tense relationship between citizens and police in Baltimore may further push police toward depersonalized, large-scale surveillance. Sociologist Peter Moskos, who trained as a Baltimore city police officer and worked for the department from 1999 to 2001, wrote in his 2008 book, Cop in the Hood, “Nobody here will talk to police. Half the public hates us. The other half is scared to talk to us. How are we supposed to see anything?” So digital surveillance becomes an enticing option. This frustration, in combination with the war on drugs’ endless demand for new suspects and arrests, has fueled US law enforcement surveillance for decades.
One cop bluntly offered BPD’s perspective on using technologies like stingrays in a Maryland House Judiciary committee hearing in March. “Obviously we probably use the equipment more than anybody in total. Sadly it’s due to the crime rate that we do have in the city,” said Lt. Michael Fries said. “For what we do … we need this. We need to use it in residential areas.”
Who’s Watching the Watchers?
Another crucial factor here is lack of police oversight. The BPD kept its stingray use secret for years, relying on a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. As a result, the public couldn’t scrutinize how the technology was deployed. And the recent Justice Department report refers to “systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law … leading directly to a broad spectrum of constitutional and statutory violations.” In other words, the Baltimore Police Department seems to be operating at its own discretion.
Widespread use of surveillance may not be so much a massive government conspiracy as it is a result of a deeply conflicted and burdened department trying to find ways—constitutional or not—to do its job.
BPD spokesperson TJ Smith said in a press conference responding to the Bloomberg story that work with Persistent Surveillance Systems “is not a secret spy program” and emphasized that, “there was no conspiracy not to disclose it.” But there was never a clear public announcement of the initiative, and Bloomberg reports that BPD refused to acknowledge the program or discuss it with reporters. The department never brought the plan before the Baltimore Board of Estimate or sought any other public approval because funding came from two philanthropists in Texas, Laura and John Arnold, who earmarked money for the aerial surveillance through the Baltimore Community Foundation nonprofit.
Even Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has admitted she didn’t know about the aerial surveillance program until she read about it. But she then went on to defend it, calling it “cutting-edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer.” Rawlings-Blake added, “This technology is about public safety. This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone.” Never mind that “surveillance” is literally in the brand name of the aerial snooping service.
The police, “will always try to walk right up to the line of what the rule is, but if they’re doing that they need some sort of self-braking mechanism,” says Baltimore-based assistant public defender Daniel Kobrin. “It’s missing in Baltimore.” And until someone starts watching the watchers—and setting limits on their privacy intrusions—expect the city to keep earning its reputation as the crucible of America’s domestic spying.