On the first day of April, Baltimore officials approved a deal between the Baltimore Police Department and Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance Systems to use drones equipped with high-resolution cameras in order to spy on the city’s residents through around-the-clock surveillance despite formal objections filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Defense Fund.
Unfortunately, this was no “April Fools” joke.
On Thursday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the BPD seeking to block the program, saying that it will put everyone in the city “under constant aerial surveillance,” WBALTV 11 reports.
“It is equivalent to having a police officer follow us, each of us, outside all the time in case we might commit a crime,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “If that happened in real life, everyone would clearly understand the privacy and First Amendment implications, and it would never be tolerated.”
The spy planes can cover at least 90% of Baltimore’s land area at any given moment. The ACLU fears that the technology can be combined with the BPD’s ground cameras and license plate readers and that all of that data can be tied together and used to provide detailed information as to the identities and activities of the city’s citizens.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison doesn’t appear to disagree that the city’s police officers will have this added access; he just sees it as a positive.
“This actually can serve as a force multiplier for the police department, and perhaps can be used as an investigative tool while we are practicing social distancing,” said Harrison during an April 1 online public hearing on the project, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Sure Jan, it’s the global pandemic that has made aerial surveillance necessary, not an unhealthy obsession with spying on the day-to-day lives of private citizens.
Rocah noted that, like all things law enforcement-related, people of color will likely be disproportionately targeted.
“Putting residents under continuous, aerial surveillance will impact the privacy rights of everyone, but it is especially dangerous for Black and Brown communities,” Rocah said, according to The Hill. “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.”
Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with ACLU’s National Security Project, expressed concerns that the BPD’s use of spy planes could set a precedent that could expand to nationwide use of the technology.
“We are concerned that if it is deployed over Baltimore, law enforcement across the country is going to seek to use it as well,” Gorski said in an interview, according to WJC.
The pilot program is set to begin this month for a trial period of 180 days, but, according to WJC, Baltimore judge Richard Bennett ordered the BDP not to begin any surveillance flights while the court reviews the suit. Bennett promises to issue a decision by April 24.