October, 2016

Aerial surveillance in Baltimore

Baltimore Police began using an aerial surveillance system, starting in January 2016, and continuing through the summer months, made available through a private donation.  About 100 hours of filming was done January and February, and about 200 hours over the summer months, according to Baltimore Police.  The system, a product of Persistent Surveillance Systems, Inc., is an array of cameras fitted into a Cessna that takes images and sends them to ground-based hard-drives, where the images are stored, at the rate of about one image per second.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement stating, “This technology is about public safety. This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city.” According to the Baltimore Police, the system is “not an unmanned drone or a secret surveillance program,” but is “a 21st century investigative tool used to assist investigators in solving crimes.  The wide area imagery system allows for the capability of seeing 32 square miles.”

Prior to the project in Baltimore, the company tested the system for nine days over Compton, California, a largely minority-populated community south of Los Angeles.  The city residents and leaders, including the mayor, did not find out about the surveillance until a year later; outrage followed, and Compton Mayor Aja Brown subsequently told the Los Angeles Times, “There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily.”

Source:  Monte Reel, “Secret Cameras record Baltimore’s Every Move From Above,” bloomberg.com, August 23, 2016: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-baltimore-secret-surveillance/ “Baltimore Police Respond To Report Of Secret Aerial Surveillance Program,” cbslocal.com, August 24, 2016: http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2016/08/24/baltimore-police-respond-to-report-of-secret-aerial-surveillance-program/

Cell-phone surveilling technology

A recent article in the New York Times describes how “digital spying outfits,” particularly one called the NSO Group, “aggressively market” their smartphone tracking technology and services to law enforcement and governments globally.  The technology is capable of capturing smartphone data, including location and contacts, and can be used to operate the smartphone as a recording device.  The NSO Group, a privately-held Israeli company, reportedly has an internal vetting process and an ethics committee to screen potential customers according to human rights rankings as established by the World Bank.  A company spokesman said the spyware was only sold to authorized governments for anti-crime and anti-terrorism purposes.  However, the article reported that in at least two instances, one in the United Arab Emirates and the other in Mexico, the technology or services attempted to gain access to the iPhones of, in the Emirates, a human rights activist, and, in Mexico, a journalist reporting on government corruption.

Bill Marczak, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab in the School of Global Affairs, was quoted as saying, “There’s no check on this … Once NSO’s systems are sold, governments can essentially use them however they want.”

The primary product, a tracking system called Pegasus, can –without leaving any trace – access iPhones and Blackberry, Android, and other devices.  The data collected can include text messages, contacts, emails, browser histories, and instant messages, as well as utilizing the camera and conducting a “room tap” by activating the device’s microphone.

The Pegasus spyware can be installed in a variety of ways, including through “over the air stealth installation,” through Wi-Fi hot spots, and email links.  The system is not inexpensive; there is an initial installation fee of $500,000.00, and then $650,000.00 for 10 iPhone targets or 10 Android targets; 100 additional targets may be included for an additional $800,000.00.  For those fees, the company notes, a government can get “unlimited access” to the target and can “remotely and covertly collect information about [the] target’s relationships, location, phone calls, plans and activities – whenever and wherever they are.”

Sources:  Nicole Perlroth, “How Spy Tech Firms Let Governments See Everything on a Smartphone,” nytimes.com, September 2, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/technology/nso-group-how-spy-tech-firms-let-governments-see-everything-on-a-smartphone.html?_r=0

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor