Right now, a Cessna plane outfitted with multiple cameras is flying over Baltimore to conduct wide-area surveillance. Those four to six cameras can capture an area of about 30 square miles. The real-time images are stitched together and continuously transmitted at a rate of one per second to analysts on the ground.
The public has no clue the Cessna is flying and filming overhead, sometimes for 10 hours a day, or that the Baltimore Police Department has been tapping into that surveillance to fight crime. It’s being conducted by a private company, Persistent Surveillance Systems; the surveillance has not been publicly disclosed and is being funded by a private donor.
The captured images are stored on hard drives so they can be pulled up and reviewed at a later date if needed. According to Bloomberg, which has aninteresting and in-depth report, Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, pitches the surveillance as: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”
Although the captured images are not sharply defined, and instead supposedly resemble blurry blobs, it is good enough to be used as a forensics tool.
If the image quality is really that bad, then you might wonder how the surveillance works. After Radiolab watched one analyst work last year, they explained on a podcast how the police say a crime happened in a certain area and the analyst pulls up the location, zooms in, clicks frame-by-frame backward until about five minutes before the crime. The analyst would tag a suspect by placing an “orange circle over the pixelated shape” and “then click, click, click, he moves forward, forward, forward.”
Another analyst told Bloomberg that is was like “playing a video game.” He would place his cursor over a vehicle to track it frame-by-frame. The job was pitched to him as something a gamer might enjoy.
Once a suspect has been identified by the overhead surveillance footage, an analyst tracks the person back to a house or to a car – somewhere for police to apprehend the suspect. The footage reportedly cannot make out features of the pixelated person, but if that suspect walks past a street-level surveillance camera, then the police can pull that up to obtain a clear image of the person.
McNutt reportedly would rather have transparency about the eye-in-the-sky surveillance that he can provide. He believes if people know they are being watched, then it would curb crime.