Jul 31, 2019

Baltimore wrestles with aerial surveillance

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With a surge of violent crime plaguing the streets of Baltimore, some residents whose lives have been upended by murder are pushing for a drastic measure: citywide surveillance.

Why it matters: Americans have historically valued privacy over security and generally reject the idea of being monitored by anyone, especially law enforcement.

  • But record-setting homicide rates in Baltimore — not to mention national attention on the city's problems following President Trump's recent Twitter insults — may test that mindset.

Baltimore's surveillance saga began in 2016, when a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) embarked on a quiet pilot project with the city's police force to test the firm's wide-area surveillance technology.

How it works: From a plane flying overhead, powerful cameras capture aerial images of the entire city. Photos are snapped every second, and the plane can be circling the city for up to 10 hours a day.

  • "It's like Google Earth Live meets TiVo," said Ross McNutt, the company's CEO, via Skype when Axios asked for a demonstration of the technology.
  • When a 911 call is received, police relay location information to analysts watching the footage in real time. Those analysts can zoom in just enough to make out the movement of vehicles and people near the scene of a crime.
  • Using time stamps and a lot of mouse-clicks, analysts track the movements of cars and people — which look like pixelated shapes on the screen without any visible identifying features — and can tell police where suspects may have fled.
  • Officers can then tap into other technologies, like street-level security cameras, to piece together clues.

The problem: The police department kept the project secret, and it ended abruptly when it was revealed by media reports.

  • The incident came amid heightened tensions between the public and law enforcement, only a year after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.
  • PSS also pitched the service as a way to keep police officers accountable.
  • The system's effectiveness is largely untested, and pilot projects have been too short to assess impact on crime reduction.
  • The ACLU called it "the technological equivalent of putting an ankle GPS monitor on every person in Baltimore" and a "cynical attempt to profit off the city's trauma."

Violent crime has continued to soar. Baltimore has had more than 300 homicides for 4 years in a row. In 2018, the number hit 342, a record per capita rate for the city and well above other major metros with more than 500,000 people.

Through June of this year, more than 150 people have been killed — a 17% increase over the same period last year, per the Baltimore Sun.

  • Two of those losses devastated the family of Archie Williams, whose 15-year-old nephew and 24-year-old cousin were killed recently.
  • Williams, 39, is among those pushing to bring PSS back to the city. Sacrificing privacy to save lives, he said, is a "no brainer."
  • "If you live in this city, you have to be concerned," he told Axios. "We can use technology to nip this in the bud, or sit here and watch people die."

State of play: McNutt has held 58 community meetings in the city in the past two years to demonstrate the technology and try to ease people's concerns — but reactions have been mixed.

  • Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh had said she would consider bringing the program back if the community supported it. She resigned in May.
  • But new Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who had scheduled a hearing on the issue last year when he served as City Council President, isn't interested in reviving the surveillance program.
  • "At this time, that is not something Mayor Young is looking at as part of the crime fighting strategy for Baltimore," emailed Young's press secretary, James Bentley.
  • The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The big picture: While the legal landscape around real-time surveillance is shifting, finding the balance between privacy and law enforcement comes down to community conversations, said Kelsey Finch, senior policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum.

And while some people may generally be comfortable with sensors on cars or streetlights, seeing planes or drones flying overhead can feel much more threatening.

  • "That sense that you can see it and it's watching you can evoke much more visceral privacy concerns than other technologies that might actually have the same impacts," Finch said.

That visceral reaction is exactly what will help deter crime, McNutt said.

"We want to be public and visible in what we're doing. We want someone who's thinking about breaking the law to look up and see that airplane and decide not to do it."

Go deeper:

  • This Bloomberg video shows how the technology works.
  • Pro Publica journalist and Baltimore resident Alec MacGillis takes a deeper look at the city's struggle with violent crime.

Go deeper

Scoop: Trump considered declaring state of emergency in Baltimore

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

It isn't clear if there was a plan for last week. Some consequential things went down: The U.S. sanctioned Iran's top diplomat, revved up the trade war with China, and signed off on a spending bill that will spike the national debt. But all that got largely lost by the wayside as the president went to war with a Baltimore icon.

The big picture: Nobody knew it was coming, nobody knew how to handle it, and a week later, senior White House officials have their fingers crossed that the president won't turn their week upside-down once again with another tweet about a "Fox and Friends" segment. As the week has unfurled, people inside and outside the White House described to me how a few pokes of a keyboard by the leader of the free world sent some of Washington's most powerful political players scrambling for cover.

Go deeperArrowAug 4, 2019

National Cathedral: Trump's tweets give cover to white supremacists

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Washington National Cathedral's leaders said Tuesday that President Trump uses "dangerous" and "violent dehumanizing words" to attack minority lawmakers and the city of Baltimore — warning that "violent words lead to violent actions."

"[T]hey are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human 'infestation' in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation."
— Statement by Washington National Cathedral leaders
Go deeperArrowJul 31, 2019

Cities track citizens' sentiment through social media

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Monitoring social media feeds is a common practice for major brands and companies trying to keep up with consumer sentiment and tastes. City governments are now tapping into those data streams to keep tabs on residents' chatter and complaints about what's happening around town.

Why it matters: Twitter and Facebook posts, when combined with other city tip lines and data collection tools, can be a gold mine of information about what citizens really think.

The big picture: Social media creates a wide-ranging sensor network of sorts that helps cities direct resources to what residents actually care about. But it can also be surprising for users who don't expect city staff to be paying attention.

What's happening: Zencity, a Tel Aviv-based Microsoft-backed startup, sells an AI-powered sentiment analysis tool designed to track citizen opinions so cities can gauge how they are performing. Zencity works with 75 communities and collects more than 1.5 million social media interactions each month.

  • "Cities need to know if they're doing a good job, but they don't have a feedback loop," said CEO Eyal Feder-Levy, citing low response rates to city surveys and low attendance at traditional town hall meetings. "This is the basic concept of meeting people where they are."

How it works: Zencity provides a dashboard that aggregates data points including social media posts, local news stories, messages received by cities' 311 portals, and online feedback forms. Zencity collects more than 1.5 million interactions each month, Feder-Levy said. AI is used to identify and sort trends, anomalies and public sentiment.

For example: Houston works with Zencity to gauge how residents are responding to changes in city services, such as a recent garbage pickup schedule change and a project equipping free WiFi on public buses and trains.

  • "A lot of the products and services we're rolling out don't have measurements attached," said Jesse Bounds, Houston's chief information officer. "We can look at usage for a metric for success, but what we wouldn't have is whether customers care, whether they're excited about it. We need to prove out the value of all these investments in our smart city infrastructure."
  • In Cary, North Carolina, a town of about 160,000, local officials used Zencity data to monitor how residents felt about the fleet of electric scooters that quickly appeared on sidewalks. Mixed feelings from residents led the city council to allow e-scooters but reserved the right to change the ordinance if needed.

The big picture: Cities naturally want to take advantage of the troves of information citizens are sharing on social media, but some people may not expect city administrators to "listen to" them when blowing off steam about a traffic jam or venting about a snow plow.

Privacy tensions bubbled up when law enforcement agencies were found to be using social media to monitor protesters and activists in 2016. After criticism, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram changed their policies to prohibit using their data for police surveillance.

That's where the distinction between passive monitoring and personal tracking is key, says Kelsey Finch, senior policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum.

  • "When we think of public monitoring, people jump to tracking individuals, which feels more targeted than tracking aggregate sentiment," she said. "It feels very different when people can put you in jail versus coming out to fix your pothole. People for the most part like to be lost in the crowd and the sense of security that comes along with it."

Many social media monitoring services, including ZenCity, aggregate data to show broad trends, heat maps and topics without singling out specific users. If city staff wants to drill down to an individual comment or comment thread, names are whited out.

Keep ReadingArrowAug 14, 2019