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.”