Thousands of runners will sweat their way past the scenic highlights of central Baltimore in the city’s marathon on Saturday, but the action will not only be at ground level. An aircraft equipped with advanced cameras is set to circle high above their heads, as part of a secretive surveillance programme funded by Texan billionaires.
Last year, Radiolab, a public radio show, featured a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, which specialises in wide-area eye-in-the-sky technology. It flies a small plane for hours above urban areas, taking thousands of photographs that are sent to analysts who then track movements at street level.
After the radio segment aired, the philanthropist John Arnold got in touch with the owner of Persistent, Ross McNutt. Arnold and his wife, Laura, were intrigued by the technology’s crime-fighting potential and agreed to fund a trial somewhere. With $360,000 from the Arnolds, McNutt struck a deal with Baltimore.
From January to August this year, Baltimore police said at a news conference last week, the plane flew over the city for 314 hours, taking more than a million images. The police added that the plane would operate as an anti-terrorism measure during Fleet Week, which started on Monday, and the marathon.
This spurt of transparency was more than a little tardy. Until Bloomberg Businessweek ran a story in August, virtually no one knew about the surveillance programme, not even the mayor. Yet the technology raises obvious civil liberties questions, as does the way the plan was funded: by unaccountable private citizens in Houston whose wealth silently enabled a blanket tracking tool in a large city with notoriously strained relations between police and residents.
“[John Arnold] called me, and he just heard it on the Radiolab piece and asked what he could do to help, and he thought we could run a test with the system and I said we would love to and we appreciate his help,” said McNutt. “They’re fantastic people, they really are, and they’re doing great things and trying to help out as much as they can.”
The Arnolds are not universally loved. Two years ago, a Bloomberg profile of John Arnold was headlined: Giving Back Has Made This 41-year-old Retired Billionaire Less Popular.
The Dallas-born Arnold was a millionaire Enron trader who became a billionaire hedge fund manager. He quit at 38, having amassed a reported $4bn fortune, and started the Laura and John Arnold Foundation with his wife, a former attorney. They have committed to giving the bulk of their wealth to philanthropic causes and have an appetite for forensic examination of complex and often divisive issues.
According to the Foundation, it has awarded more than $617m in grant money since 2011, in line with its aim of seeking “transformational change” through “strategic investments in criminal justice, education, evidence-based policy and innovation, public accountability, and research integrity”.
The Foundation has helped a wide range of institutions and causes, from universities to civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center, both of which received grants to combat the problem of indigent defendants being detained because they cannot afford to pay court fines.
Personally, the Arnolds have backed Democratic politicians including Barack Obama and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and sent at least $5m to Planned Parenthood’s political wing.
Until now, the Foundation’s efforts on pension reform have drawn the most media attention, with some unions expressing outrage at proposals they claim would drastically cut back the retirement incomes of public sector workers.
“What I like about their philanthropy is that they are bold and they are more willing to take risks and be controversial than your typical foundation,” said Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for ResponsivePhilanthropy, a research and advocacy group. “That said,” he added, citing their pensions work and the surveillance scheme, “some of the things that they are trying to make happen in the world are of dubious merit.
“The problem here is that policing is a public good and decisions about how to do policing ought to be made by the public and in the sunshine with full transparency. In this case you had none of that – you had donors who thought it would be a good idea to test this new technology and a police force that was willing to take their money and try this out and the community had no idea this was going on. To me that’s a big problem.”
The Arnolds, who for the Baltimore project gave money personally rather than through their foundation, turned down an interview request, via a representative. “We invest in a wide array of criminal justice issues and policies, including strategies for improving the clearance rate of criminal cases,” they said in a statement.
“One such strategy is to use technology to assist police in early-stage investigations. To that end, we personally provided financial support for the aerial surveillance tool being piloted in Baltimore. As a society, we should seek to understand whether these technologies yield significant benefits, while carefully weighing any such benefits against corresponding tradeoffs to privacy.”
A sceptic might argue that society cannot understand something it does not know about. David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said his organisation was concerned by the nature of the surveillance and the opaque way it was adopted.
“What the secret funding from the Arnolds meant,” he said, “is that it didn’t even have to be disclosed to the city’s purchasing folks and the mayor didn’t know, the city council didn’t know … nobody knew.
“The fact is that surveillance technologies are acquired by police departments all over the country all the time with zero public input, even where the Arnolds aren’t secretly funding it. This case is just an extraordinary, an extreme, example of a larger problem.”
Most of the money was passed to Baltimore through the Police Foundation, a not-for-profit research body in Washington that previously worked with the Arnold Foundation on a study of eyewitness identification procedure. As soon as next week, the Police Foundation intends to release a report that will examine the potential value of McNutt’s surveillance technology.
“It is very common for philanthropic organisations that are interested in advancing policing or studying it, or something [similar], to fund studies,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation.
“It’s my belief that there are other police departments that are currently using similar technology or will be in the future and we want to find out: is it effective? And where are the limits to this in terms of civil liberties? And how does a police department go about using this kind of technology and doing so in a way that enhances community trust and confidence in the department and not detract from it?”
Dorfman expects more city governments to cultivate relationships with wealthy donors, citing the example of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which recently asked local philanthropists for an endowment so the city could lower taxes but increase services.
“As government is more and more starved for resources, there are increasingly efforts to replace what should be government spending with philanthropic dollars and that can be for police or other public services,” he said.
“The problem with this is that we are a democracy, or supposed to be a democracy, and we should be willing to tax ourselves at rates where we can pay for the public services that we want and need for our communities – and it should not be left to the whims of billionaires to decide which public goods get paid for and which don’t.”