Seeing Like a City


If Reason's personalized June covers freaked you out, you might not want to buy a home in Baltimore. In today's Sun, Doug Donovan describes how the local government came to possess a "comprehensive view of every nook and cranny" in town:

In November, the city paid Pictometry $54,075 to photograph every address in Baltimore from every direction. In January, pilots in a Cessna 172 crisscrossed the city at 5,000 feet for broader swaths and at 2,500 feet to obtain neighborhood-size shots, said Dante Pennacchia, Pictometry's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Three digital cameras on the plane constantly clicked pictures: One lens faced straight down while two others, protruding through holes in the plane's sides, took photographs at 45-degree angles, Pennacchia said. Each image is labeled by latitude and longitude as it's recorded, allowing city officials to measure distances, heights, widths and slopes of any street, object or structure in the city.

Also new is integrating other databases…with these more detailed images. The photographs are also useful as virtual maps of neighborhoods and buildings.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ACLU isn't upset about this. That is partly because the database will only be updated every two years, so it doesn't represent perpetual surveillance; partly because the photos aren't quite detailed enough to show faces or license plate numbers; and partly because, in the words of spokeswoman Stacey Mink, there's "a legitimate use" for the images. And indeed, as Donovan notes, firefighters "could type the address into a laptop computer loaded with Pictometry images and -- as they raced to the scene -- get a clear photograph of the structure at that address. They could also see what obstructions might be on the roof or in an alley. And by clicking and dragging the computer mouse, they could measure the building's height and its distance to neighboring structures." Sounds pretty legitimate to me.

But the first branch of Baltimore's government to make waves with the new technology isn't the fire department. It's housing officials, who are using it to enforce busybody regulations:

Superimposing deck-permit data over corresponding aerial images, housing officials can easily see which decks have permits. Software marks any address that does have a permit with a red dot. No red dot means no permit -- and a visit from a housing inspector.

When the images were taken in January of the 2300 block of Eastern Ave. where [Steve] Ford lives, eight houses had decks. Six had permits. Ford's deck wasn't one of them. He said his deck has a permit, but city records indicate otherwise.

Ford said he does not object to the city owning such images, unless, he added, "it's used for nickel-and-dime stuff like that."