ACLU sues to stop surveillance planes
Use of aerial footage of citizens moving around the city violates the First and Fourth amendments, federal complaint says
Above: Logo of the Ohio-based company that has been contracted by the city to fly surveillance planes over Baltimore for the police.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has sued the Baltimore Police Department over the controversial “spy plane” program slated to begin this month.
In a suit filed today in U.S. District Court in Maryland, the ACLU calls the trial program a “society-changing threat to individual privacy and to free association” and details how they believe it violates the First and Fourth amendments of the constitution.
“The BPD’s unconstitutional aerial surveillance program would be the most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city,” said Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Center for Democracy.
“And if it’s allowed to move forward, it could become a chilling and all-seeing part of daily life all over the country,” he warned.
Three Planes over Baltimore
There was little comment about the suit today from Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who at first expressed skepticism about the program, then quarterbacked it for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young through the Board of Estimates.
“They’re trying to find a court date,” Harrison said at a news conference with Young, adding, “We’ll follow the law.”
Last month, the BOE voted 3-2 to approve the contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems, which intends to fly three private airplanes over the city, capturing nearly everyone’s locations when outside during daytime hours.
The project is intended to start sometime in April and run for a test period of six months at most.
The ACLU claims the surveillance would discriminate against minorities since the street cameras used in conjunction with plane footage to identify individuals are primarily in non-white neighborhoods.
“With the advanced tech we have now, the Fourth Amendment, if anything, needs to become more privacy protective,” Ashley Gorski, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project, said at a press conference today.
“I didn’t know the police were monitoring my cell phone and text messages during the 2015 uprising,” said Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Looking back at it, I should’ve been a lot more upset than I was.”
Another plaintiff, Kevin James, a hip-hop musician and community organizer, also warned that aerial footage could easily be diverted from its intended use of investigating crimes.
“The city and the Baltimore Police Department may claim that if you are not doing anything wrong, you do not have anything to worry about. But that claim is clearly disproven by the countless historic examples where the government used surveillance to oppress groups they find politically threatening,” James said.
“It is disquieting to know someone is watching you all the time.”