It might sound fresh out of the pages of Orwell's 1984, but it's not. Bloomberg recently published a lengthy and revealing article about the Baltimore Police Department's surveillance operations, which employ an aircraft equipped with up to 6 commercial cameras to watch citizens below.
The project has been hidden from the public.
Since January, the Baltimore Police Department has employed a company named Persistent Surveillance Systems that provides it with a set of eyes in the sky. A Cessna aircraft, flying "for as many as 10 hours a day," spies on Baltimore's residents, recording the moves of cars and people with a large camera array.
Bloomberg said the camera wasn't good enough to zoom in and allow the surveillance team to identify someone, or even a vehicle, but it did allow them to watch for events, like riots that might echo those which occurred following the death of Freddie Gray. It's also used to track hit-and-runs and burglaries, among other crimes, when possible.
According to Bloomberg, Persistent Surveillance Systems tries to sell its products, like the flying spy plane, under the basis that they can help cut back crime "by as much as 20 percent." There isn't any hard evidence that it's capable of actually doing that, and that figure assumes the public knows it's being watched. In this case, they don't. The camera might also be used to record a terrorist attack, and investigators would be able to use those recordings to catch a suspect. Here's Bloomberg's explanation:
If a roadside bomb exploded while the camera was in the air, analysts could zoom in to the exact location of the explosion and rewind to the moment of detonation. Keeping their eyes on that spot, they could further rewind the footage to see a vehicle, for example, that had stopped at that location to plant the bomb. Then they could backtrack to see where the vehicle had come from, marking all of the addresses it had visited. They also could fast-forward to see where the driver went after planting the bomb—perhaps a residence, or a rebel hideout, or a stash house of explosives. More than merely identifying an enemy, the technology could identify an enemy network.
For now, Baltimore apparently still declines to confirm the program even exists. The goal might be to keep us safer, but do we really want to live 10,000 feet under police eyes?