Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Surveillance plane starts flying over Baltimore (wbaltv.com)
119 points by jbegley 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments

Clearly the 'film only public spaces' argument is specious. It films everybody in their back yard, in their walled lot, in their private green space. It can't distinguish public from private from 10000 feet.

As I understand how its used, somebody robs a liquor store and drives away. Maybe 10 days later a detective gets a warrant for the footage from that day, finds the part where they drove away, then follows the footage backward to the part where they left their house. Then drives over and arrests them. Kind of like a time machine, or Minority Report in reverse.

Few private companies been at this for a bit selling to law enforcement. Persistent Surveillance Systems have a few good videos on their abilities though strangely enough aren't mentioned in this article. They've been secretly doing this in Baltimore before it became public, be interested whether they are still contracted.

Intelligence agencies have been doing it in-house for a long time, you can watch them daily on flight trackers.

Buzzfeed open sourced their tracking methods.





RadioLab did an episode about this that ran through an example of a police officer murdered in an ambush in Juarez, Mexico.


I think the movie you're looking for is Enemy of the State.

Enemy of the State is in real time. I guess at the time nobody could assume we would be able to record widely enough and store the video for long enough to retrospectively pursue people.

If you liked "Enemy of the State" you will like "Eye in the Sky" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_in_the_Sky_(2015_film)

Take a look at Eyes in the Sky, it's an interesting read. https://www.amazon.com/Eyes-Sky-Secret-Gorgon-Stare-ebook/dp...

"It can't film onto private places" they say as they record private property across the city. This is a disgusting encroachment upon our lives. Even if they can find a technical loophole to make it legal, it's the kind of action that degrades trust in the government and strengthens militias and anti-government behavior.

> Images are stored for 45 days and can be used only for criminal investigation.

Anyone who believes that, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

> [Police Commissioner Michael] Harrison sees no privacy concern.

I can see him saying he considers the crime fighting value of data gained greater than the privacy lost, but to see no concern sounds like lack of empathy, compassion, and competence.

Understandable response. But this is far from the first city to do this. Previous cities, the company involved is separate from the police force, and requires a warrant to reveal any footage. Any slipup, they lose their contract. So some incentives to keep it honest.

That is much, much worse. If it's a private company they can skirt FOIA and coverup abuse much more easily. The government is getting too good at this outsourcing of all risk and liability.

I noticed you didn’t mention anything about the citizens who might have been affected by a “slip up”. What have those cities done to compensate the victims?

> Any slipup, they lose their contract

Who enforces it? How can they know?

I like how you take one sentence from the guy and infer the worst.

He's also flying a plane over a city surveilling everyone -- "the most comprehensive surveillance ever imposed on an American city in the history of the country" in one attorney's opinion.

He also said, "There is no expectation of privacy on a public street, a sidewalk. . . while you are outside, there is no expectation of privacy."

I didn't infer the worst, which might be malice or self-serving, not incompetence.

> while you are outside, there is no expectation of privacy.

Am I unreasonable to have an expectation of privacy while in my backyard? Certainly I can have an expectation of privacy while also not being inside a building at the same time.

Baltimore also has crime crisis. I think just like how people are willing to give up some freedom in the COVID crisis, people in Baltimore are making a similar choice wrt crime.

Baltimore has always had a crime crisis. COVID19 is a convenient excuse to enact some draconian "orders" that overstep the normal bounds of authority. I'm sure they believe it will reduce crime, and it probably will. But will they stop using it and/or destroy the data once crime rates trend downwards?

Choice? Was there a referendum election about this?

Wait, so we need a referendum for every decision now?

There is a murder in Baltimore just about every day. It is an incredibly violent city.

This interview with David Simon "The Wire" provides insight.


Beating up on the police department has become a favorite past time of the politicians, with the predictable result that officers are unwilling to go after criminals unless it is very cut and dried. This is likely why this plane is being pushed - it would provide clear evidence without hard police work that is impossible to do in the political climate of the city.

Yes. Baltimore has various nicknames such as Murdermore. It is also the place where Edgar Allen Poe lived, where amazing wineries can be found, where some say the best crabs in the country are, where Johns Hopkins Hospital is - the No. 1 hospital on US News Honor Roll of Best Hospitals 2013-2014.

Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Yes, he was actually talking about the Penn family trying to buy the governor off to veto defense spending, but the quote's sentiment is still valid.

Surveillance technology can be a good thing, but only if policed very well with adequate checks and balances. I don't usually see those checks and balances in place when surveillance is rolled out.

Wasn't Baltimore that was in the news all over the world a few years ago because of police officers blatantly pursuing black people?

It was more nuanced than that given the population. Interestingly the writer of the wire and the original cast announced a new show about Baltimore and the police specifically is in the works.

There was a great Radiolab episode about this system back in 2015: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/eye-s...

Probably related Radiolab episode covering a similar/same(?) system: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/eye-s...

So they feel that it's ok because there is no expectation of privacy in public places? Could I really choose someone and follow them every time they left their home? Or is there also an element of it being indiscriminate at play? This is so ridiculous and outrageous to me.

I'm a European myself but it sounds like everything America was set up on the hope of avoiding. What about all those people who advocate gun rights? Why aren't they up on arms, either metaphorically or even literally, about this?

Guns rights advocates are less likely to live in cities, so this doesn't affect them. Besides, the people in cities are the ones who commonly vote to take away gun rights, so it could be a case of "this is what they get for continually voting to take rights away".

I disagree with your first part (gun rights advocates live everywhere, even if they're not as vocal), but I do agree with your second part (you reap what you sow).

This is an effect of slowly giving up rights over the years.

Which rights have been given up, specifically? Clearly not gun rights.

Well, seeing as how the second amendment says "shall not be infringed", it could be argued that any law restricting arms ownership is in violation. In fact, you'll find many folks with that opinion.

Given up? Perhaps not. Greatly restricted? Definitely.

The 4th.

> What about all those people who advocate gun rights? Why aren't they up on arms, either metaphorically or even literally, about this?

They probably are, but militias planning anti-government behavior don't tend to post to social media, and such groups tend to get banned or shadowbanned by social media anyway.

What about all those people who advocate gun rights? Why aren't they up on arms, either metaphorically or even literally, about this?

They are largely suburban and rural whites. Police overreach largely impacts suburban and urban minorities. They aren't necessarily racist, they just don't see the impact.

The political right has always (at least in my 30 years of paying attention) had a strong authoritarian tilt as well.

I don’t think it is fair to spin privacy into a left right issue here. Both parties have a pretty terrible track record. The program is self imposed, so if urban voters don’t want the program, they can vote to stop it. Literally not the jurisdiction of the rural folk

Absolutely, I was responding to the question about gun-rights advocates often supporting surveillance. That group in particular is largely rural/suburban/white, while those impacted by police/government surveillance are largely urban.

I would argue that most surveillance supporters are middle and upper class urbanites, and specifically want to surveile lower class urbanites.

Regarding the gun owners, my intuition is that they would be more privacy minded than the average American, but I didn't find any information on a quick search.

Sadly, most of the gun rights supporters in the US seem to fall in the partisan camp that unwaveringly supports the police and the military, no matter how many civil and human rights those organizations seem to infringe. (It's confusing to me, too.)

(An aside: Posting a similar wonder as you just did recently got me permbanned from Twitter after 12 years of daily use and ~10k followers. You're apparently not even allowed ask questions about guns and cops in the same sentence over there, even if it's not your own guns you're asking about. No response whatsoever to support/appeal inquiries. It's toast.)

The other team, they make noises about human rights and equal protection, but have no practical means to induce the police to comply, due to decades of having voted in those states to deny themselves even optional/opt-in access to the types of weapons the police carry in every single police vehicle just meters from them on a daily basis.

Meaningful nonviolent physical resistance in most of the more populated places in the US is thus now totally infeasible, as we have learned in places like Ferguson or New York City as the police are significantly better armed than any group that they wish to subdue, legally or illegally. (For a long time I thought this was a new development until eventually learning about Kent State when I was in my mid 20s.)

For example, during the 2008 RNC in New York just before W's second term, the NYPD were able to illegally imprison several thousand peaceful political protesters for a whole weekend in temporary concentration camps with total impunity due to this physical power imbalance, which resulted a few years later in an amazing $800M civil rights violation settlement (paid for out of tax money, of course; none of the police who orchestrated the illegal mass kidnapping suffered any negative consequences).

At higher levels, both "sides" are fully in agreement about the total commitment to continuous war and widespread illegal domestic surveillance. It seems that there are absolutely zero available political choices for "no widespread unchecked surveillance, no forever war" in the US any longer.

...and so the problem continues unabated.

There’s a misrepresentation here that comes from the easy mental mistake that all ‘those’ people think the same thing.

Yes, there are lots of gun owners whose beliefs are pro authoritarian.

There are also lots of gun owners who are more anti-establishment.

We don’t have two or three monolithic groups in this country, although it seems many people would like to portray it that way for whatever reason.

We have an insanely diverse patchwork of non-exclusive groupings and categories with a wild array of beliefs, customs, and behaviors.

> For example, during the 2008 RNC in New York just before W's second term

You might want to fact check your data there. W’s second term started several years before 2008.

Oops, you're right. It was 2004, not 2008.


Do you have a record of the original tweet by any chance?

I do not. I'd share it from memory but I think it may perhaps be offtopic for HN and I'm tired of being banned from services I use every day as a result of growing arbitrary political censorship online.

I'm happy to send it to you personally; shoot me a mail.

If I ever get any sort of confirmation from Twitter that that's what caused the suspension, I am going to print some shirts for myself that say "Banned from Twitter for wondering why the Americans no longer shoot at the concentration camp guards."

That sounds like you're inciting violence which is an easy way to get banned. I know it's not your intention but it's clear why Twitter decided to ban if that's accurate

I think you should probably refrain from making assumptions (accusations?) like that without having the actual content in question to evaluate. You could easily be totally incorrect. Language is tricky.

Asking questions or wondering about why domestic terrorism and/or anti-government actions are or are not occurring during large developing political events involving militaries and unprecedented economic hardships is not “inciting violence”, it is a discussion of the political situation in a country.

It’s censorship of peaceful, political discussion.

Turns out, I wasn’t even entirely off base. The very thing I was asking about is a real phenomenon:


I still think your experience is so far outside other people's interaction with these services, that i can only guess you made some kind of threat to hurt someone. Maybe you didn't perceive it that way. Asking if the us military did something potentially bad seems ordinary. If you can't remember what you posted and you don't want to try to recreate your comment, then no one has any information to evaluate whether it was an over-reaction. Do you get that?

I was considering being done replying to this thread two replies ago, but I find it necessary in light of these (baseless) accusations to post a final time.

For the record, to be absolutely unambiguous: I did not threaten anyone.

"sounds like" and "if that's accurate"

Twitter rarely bans people for literally no reason, and it's typically safe to assume something happened to trigger it, even if unintentional.

I agree, I could be totally wrong. Hence my hedging language

Quick google search turned out an alternate source:


How are individuals identified? It's one thing to have street-level cameras, but something else entirely when it's a plane flying at 10,000 feet. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems like it would be extremely difficult to accurately identify a person that way (barring NSA/CIA/military level technology and sophistication). What am I missing?

Even with my doubts, I'm extremely opposed to such surveillance!

Would a demo of what is possible at 4000 feet suffice?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L80HDdS7Wg (4min33sec)

Or what was state of the art at DARPA in 2013?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGxNyaXfJsA (4min40sec)

Edit: Or more commonly available, just search for "Nikon Superzoom" on youtube, and watch some short demos there. And then imagine those pointed in all directions downwards, the videostream(s) saved to some small storage array, or even transmitted live to some ground station(s), indexed and overlaid on something like google maps, just better, with a time slider. Mark some car at some point (in time) and see where it moves...and so on.

Edit: like THIS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptSeU-OnI8E (3min13sec)

Edit: Oh! And something from 2016 about "The Surveillance Firm Recording Crimes From Baltimore's Skies" (7min29sec) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRa-AucbN6k

Another demo of the same thing from the same person/company in another town, also 2016: "The Eyes in the Sky That Catch Murders on Tape" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJLr0KMsRAA (5min)

So why is this news?

Thanks for providing the links. Despite the impressive cameras and processing capabilities to go with them, I believe that it would be simple to counter. Adding any of baseball caps or other hats, sunglasses, jackets, face mask, or gloves should make it far more difficult to identify a person. Carry a backpack of accessories and change them to further confuse. A person can make their movements harder to track by traveling non-direct routes, back-tracking, and moving in and out of buildings.

The bigger problem is that ordinary citizens shouldn't be under that kind of surveillance EVER. It's good to have these things brought to light and discussed (especially the downsides and all potential for abuse).

Radiolab ran a story from the "Note to Self" podcast in 2015 about trials for persistent surveillance of this sort.


"Then, once we realize what we can do, we wonder whether we should."

Naive question here. Is it illegal to build counter surveillance tech, I mean you have companies that specialise in building these things for governments would it be illegal to start a company that does the opposite, build tech that helps people beat this sort of surveillance?

Better idea -- make products that let the public track law enforcement and politicians in the same way that law enforcement is tracking people.

If police don't need a warrant to do something that probably means that it's legal to do, right?

This is an excellent way to learn about how criminal law is not applied equally in the United States, but instead is wielded as a weapon selectively against anyone who would challenge the status quo.

There was a famous case recently where a judge ruled that searching someone's trash didn't require a warrant as they had discarded it and it was no longer "theirs", so cops were within their rights to search through it. Presumably having been granted permission, some journalists then took it upon themselves to inventory and publish the exact contents of the judge's trash, including prescription medicine packaging and such. If I recall correctly, it didn't end well for the journalists.

There are two different sets of laws, for two different sets of people in the US.

The Bork law (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Privacy_Protection_Act - specifically its genesis) is a fun example of that dynamic.

Well, of course there are. "Warrantless search" is one category, and "search by random person" is another. The 2nd is closer to harassment, in some opinions.

It's not quite fair to compare actions by an officer of the court with that of the general public. By design.

Huh, seems like this argument doesn't go along with the "trash is no longer your property" conclusion.

If you say the police can do it because he's a police officer [... and because of that does it mean he has better judgement?], then why have a law about warrants?

Lots of possible differences remain. Entering private property to secure the trash - an officer of the court can normally do that without being considered harassment or trespass.

Being an officer of the court is important, and attempts to blur that are disingenuous. Cherry-picking one facet of the incident is not a good argument. What-about-isms likewise.

> can normally do that

Not without a warrant

If its urgent, or they have reasonable cause.

Again, with the cherry-picking.

As in exigent circumstances?

That could actually fly if the officer had a reasonable belief the trash contained relevant evidence, and the trash collector was going to take it away before a warrant could be acquired.

They are the same: a search for no good reason

Do public servants (ostensibly politicians and law enforcement) have any expectations of privacy while on duty? By definition the public ought to have the right to systematically surveille, monitor, and track their behavior - just as governments do their public, and corporations do their employees or equipment.

It's fitting that the past decade has produced a neologism, "souveillance", to describe this approach.


I guess it depends: do you plan on selling tarp, poles and rope? Or are you thinking more of setting up a high power laser to burn out the cameras?

People just need to push for legislation that politicians and their families are allowed to be tracked , wiretapped 24/7. Clearly they are the weakest link, think of the foreign powers, think of the children. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

Naive answer: if lawmakers disapprove, they can just ban companies from helping people counter mass-surveillance efforts.

Like nearly everything in the US it varies state by state. Radar detectors are probably your best comparison


> Is it illegal to build counter surveillance tech

Would fall easily in the obstructing of justice category, so, yep. You can't win this fight

Or maybe the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is doin' some testing. After all, the NSA is in Baltimore.


> After all, the NSA is in Baltimore.

No it isn't.

Really? You are going to split those hairs?

Baltimore and Odenton are a decent distance apart, about a 30 minute drive. Also, very few federal agencies are in just any one location; they tend to have offices spread out across different states, or over the tri-state area.

It’s almost equal distance between d.c. and Baltimore.

So if someone is murdered in their backyard, and this thing filmed it, they just won’t use the footage? What if it’s the mayor? The chief of police? The president (yes I know he doesn't live in Baltimore and would be surrounded by secret service)?

Call me skeptical...

There’s an excellent book on this surveillance technology and the ramifications called Eyes in the Sky. Talks about the military’s development of Gorgon Stare and many of the domestic startups using the similar technology to watch us.

Browser: Will you allow www.wbaltv.com to access your location? (I presume they're also recording my movements)

I would actually be fine with this kind of surveillance of my movements, except that it's inaccurate. It could lead to falsely accusing people due to circumstance, like why were you in that bad neighborhood so often? You must be a drug mule. Or we saw a car just like yours go back and forth between the scene of this crime, and we don't have proof it was anyone else behind the wheel, so it must have been you.

I would actually feel better if this was used in conjunction with even more surveillance. That way there's more data to rule out coincidental or misleading information. It still wouldn't be great, but it would be better than this method alone. (They do already use cameras on cop cars to record license plates of passing cars, and cameras at intersections that flag when they register the sound of gunshots. This still isn't enough to correlate the complex movements of organized crime across the city)

Another more positive way it could be used is for community outreach programs to contact at risk youth, before they get deeply involved with gangs. Or to document and protect the LGBT POC homeless youth, one of the most vulnerable class of people in the US. Or to inform programs on overhauling public transportation, to update bus routes or plan a new rail line better. Or public health programs to battle drug addiction. Or to fine companies that dump waste into the watershed that makes its way into the harbor. You could potentially use this data for a lot of good.

Sadly, Baltimore's police have a long record of corruption, including planting evidence, a private hit squad, violence, and abuse of surveillance methods such as Stringrays. So even if I'd like to play devil's advocate, this is not a city with a great track record. They need to make this program very transparent to show it isn't abused.

I will never be fine with this kind of surveillance, in part because it can never be accurate about intentions.

Here, watch this, it's a good talk about why voluntarily providing information will generally backfire on you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-7o9xYp7eE

Technologies used in neocolonial occupation and conquest will eventually be applied domestically. It's only a matter of time before the US government elites have a real-time panopticon like China and Reapers fire weapons from the air at civilians.

Does anyone know the resolution of this surveillance footage? I.e if I have a house with lots of glass ceilings or greenhouses can it see at that detail? Does this matter?

Sorry, this content is not available in your region.

Out of interest where are you located and what browser are you using? (Works in Australia. (iOS))

doesn't work in Europe, OK from US

Does not work in Germany - I suppose because of GDPR ...

Doesn't work in Switzerland, no GDPR here.

Also from Switzerland. I never thought the lack of geographic^Wgeo-political knowledge of the average American would affect me...

This is the website of a local TV station on the other side of the planet. It is just as likely that their legal counsel is aware that the Swiss were contemplating new data protection laws at the time of GDPR implementation and advised they err on the side of compliance.

I bet the management at TeleBärn doesn’t spend much time having nuanced legal discussions about the difference between US and Canadian law either.

Not working in the UK.

We got some really weird EU rules a year or two back which fucks about with a lot of content.

Maybe they'd get a better reaction if they said it would be used to enforce social distancing edicts.

how many watts of LED powered infrared light is required to overcome the camera's contrast capability? If I wear a tinfoil hat with a giant beam of infrared light coming from the top, what do they see? what if we all do?

I'm off to walmart for some reynolds wrap

> Sorry, this content is not available in your region.

GDPR wall?

Just wear a mask.

"Sorry, this content is not available in your region."

I see, you're also disrespecting people's privacy where it is legal. Alright.


Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact