Baltimore Ends Controversial Spy Planes Over Privacy Fears

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Controversial aerial surveillance program in major US city to reduce crime ended, after lawsuit and pressure from civil rights group

A major US city has ended a ‘spy plane’ operation that has constantly monitored the city as part of a crime reduction scheme.

The east coast US city of Baltimore has this week voted to terminate its contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), formally ending its aerial surveillance program.

This is not first time that Balitmore has been in the tech headlines. In 2019 most of its computer infrastructure was crippled for months after a devastating ransonware attack, that delayed house sales, prevented water bills from being generated, and people left unable to pay parking fines or taxes.

Spy © razihusin Shutterstock 2012

Surveillance terminated

But the PSS surveillance program of Baltimore that placed the daytime movements of virtually all Baltimore residents under surveillance has been accused of being an invasion of privacy, and disproportionately targeted people of colour.

This is according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which had sued the US city over the matter and subsequent appealed, requesting the court temporarily block the Baltimore Police Department from deploying and conducting a six month trial of the aerial surveillance program.

“Baltimore’s termination of its unconstitutional spy plane program is a hard-fought victory for all Baltimoreans, especially for the Black leaders who challenged this and the communities of color who are disproportionately targeted by this surveillance,” noted Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU.

“This decision is a long-overdue recognition that this kind of all-seeing surveillance technology has no place in our cities,” Max Kaufman added.

But while the US city terminated the system, it still intends to proceed with a legal case.

“While we applaud Mayor Scott’s decision to abandon this unique threat to privacy, the City Solicitor’s comments make clear that today’s decision is in part a gambit to avoid further judicial review of the program,” noted David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.

“The law is clear that the city can’t intentionally duck accountability by suddenly bailing on its years-long defense of this technology on the eve of next month’s appeals court hearing,” said Rocah. “We plan to ensure that the case is heard, and this program declared unconstitutional, before the full Fourth Circuit next month.”

Constant surveillance

The PSS surveillance program surprisingly did not utilise drone technology, but rather two conventional Cessna propeller planes, equipped with a 192 megapixel colour video camera system, which flew over Baltimore at altitudes of up to 9,000ft (2,740m) up to 11 hours a day, the BBC reported.

Local police said the PSS planes were used to locate witnesses, suspects and vehicles related to serious crimes, but officials reportedly said that there was no proof it had been effective in its aim to reduce crime.

“If we want to bring down violence in Baltimore, we need proven public safety strategies that respect residents’ constitutional rights while engaging communities holistically,” Councilman Mark Conway, who chairs the city’s public safety and government operations committee, was quoted by the BBC as saying. “The surveillance plane did not strike that balance.”

And Mayor Brandon Scott, who was a critic of the program, reportedly said the city would be better “investing in neighbourhoods and people, not just relying on some plane”.

Smart doorbells

It should be noted that this is not the only mass surveillance program that Americans are being subjected to.

In November for example, police in Jackson, Mississippi, requested access to resident’s smart doorbells.

Essentially, the police in Mississippi’s capital city asked residents to connect their smart doorbells to a real-time surveillance hub, in an effort to fight crime.

It was reported that police in that US city were conducting a 45-day pilot program to live stream the Amazon Ring cameras of participating residents, prompting privacy worries.

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