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The city of Baltimore has voted to end a controversial surveillance program that monitored nearly every block of the city using planes equipped with high-resolution cameras.
On Wednesday, the city council officially terminated its contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private company that implemented and ran the “pilot” program for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) on and off since 2016.
Under the program, known as Aerial Investigation Research (AIR), the Baltimore Police Department flew planes equipped with technology known as Wide Area Persistent Surveillance, which was used to monitor roughly 90 percent of the city from above for up to 10 hours each day. The program began in secret in 2016 with funding from two Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, and was discovered by aviation enthusiasts monitoring publicly-accessible flight data.
“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,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, in a press statement. “This decision is a long-overdue recognition that this kind of all-seeing surveillance technology has no place in our cities.”
Last November, after a 6 month pilot that coincided with the summer’s protests against police violence, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the BPD to stop the program from being restarted. In that case, an independent audit commissioned by the city found that BPD had lied about key aspects of the program, including the scope of the program and the length of time surveillance footage was stored. The auditors concluded that the police department’s statements in the case “bear an insufficient resemblance to the reality of how AIR operates.”
The lawsuit is ongoing, and scheduled for an appeal hearing next month. Privacy advocates hope that they will ultimately stop the program from starting up again—in Baltimore, or anywhere else.
“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 David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, in a press statement sent to Motherboard. “We plan to ensure that the case is heard, and this program declared unconstitutional, before the full Fourth Circuit next month.”