The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department this month over a controversial surveillance program that utilizes spy planes with high-resolution cameras to monitor civilians.
“It is equivalent to having a police officer follow us, each of us, outside all the time in case we might commit a crime,” argues ACLU attorney David Rocah. “If that happened in real life, everyone would clearly understand the privacy and First Amendment implications, and it would never be tolerated.”
The program involves three drones operated by Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance Systems. The program allows Baltimore police to use images captured by the planes to aid investigations of homicides, shootings, and other violent crimes. The program does not allow police to use the drones to conduct real-time surveillance.
“When I heard about this, I thought it was insane. I thought that the last thing that Baltimore City Police needs right now is more power in the form of surveillance,” says Kevin James, a community organizer.
City officials approved the plan on April 1st despite formal objections filed by the ACLU and the Legal Defense Fund. The case is now being considered by Baltimore Judge Richard Bennett, who is expected to make a decision by April 24th.
If all goes according to plan, a six-month trial costing nearly $4 million will begin next month. With its three drones, Persistent Surveillance Systems will be able to maintain video footage of roughly 90% of the city at any given time. Critics worry the footage will be combined with information from ground cameras and license plate readers to obtain information in a manner that clearly violates residents’ privacy. Critics also worry the program will be adopted by police departments in other cities if it is allowed in Baltimore.
“Putting residents under continuous, aerial surveillance will impact the privacy rights of everyone, but it is especially dangerous for Black and Brown communities,” argues Rocah. “Baltimore is a city with a terrible history of racism and lack of accountability for abuses by police. It’s the last place a novel system of mass surveillance should be tested.”
Even so, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison defended the program as a “force multiplier” that will aid the police department “while we are practicing social distancing.” His words make no sense, as the data collected during the trial run will be of no use because it will be collected during a time when most people are staying inside.
To make this even worse:
For reasons unclear, the aerial surveillance program is being funded solely by a billionaire couple from Texas.
In 2016, Persistent Surveillance Systems used a small Cessna airplane to spy on Baltimore residents for months without informing the public. They collected 300 hours of secret footage, including images pertaining to the death of Freddie Gray.
That same year, the Baltimore Police Department signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice after the police were found to have demonstrated a pattern of unconstitutional conduct.
Editor’s Note: Very dangerous. Once again our government has decided to spy on its people.