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.
The problem: The police department kept the project secret, and it ended abruptly when it was revealed by media reports.
- The ACLU of Maryland 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. In 2018, there were 342 homicides, a record per capita rate for the city. 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."
The big picture: 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."