Baltimore, Maryland city officials have unanimously voted to end the city police department’s spy plane surveillance program, according to The Baltimore Sun (via Vice). Sorry, wait, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) had a spy plane program?
Yes, and it was called AIR, which stands for Aerial Investigation Research. The program was run by a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems (super friendly name), and it used airplanes and high-resolution cameras to capture what was happening in a 32-mile square mile area of the city. It also started out as a secret, with the police department paying for it not with city funds, which would be subject to public scrutiny, but with funding from two Texas billionaires.
The BPD admitted to using planes to spy on Baltimore’s residents back in 2016, managed to approve a six-month pilot program last year, and kept flying until October 31st, according to the Sun. In April, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the program.
That lawsuit is set to be moved into appeals court next month, and the city is going to be required to testify. According to the Sun, the Acting City Solicitor (read: the city’s legal advisor) said the city plans to argue there’s no point in continuing the lawsuit, as the program has been officially shut down.
The ACLU, on the other hand, isn’t planning to give up. In a statement, a senior staff attorney with ACLU Maryland said that “We plan to ensure that the case is heard,” adding that “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.”
Needless to say, regardless of the court case’s outcome, it’s probably a good thing that the program is gone. Police department officials argued that the program kept citizens’ privacy in mind, and was only used in a limited way, tracing individuals from known crime scenes, but independent evaluators hired by the city said that those claims were lies.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said that the city is “building a full strategy around public safety ... not gimmicks.” Perhaps he should add “and not mass surveillance” to that as well. Regardless, the city plans to keep 15 percent of the data for ongoing criminal investigations.