[News] Lawsuit Aims to Stop Baltimore Police From Using War-Zone Surveillance System to Spy on Residents

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Thu Apr 9 14:11:16 EDT 2020

Aims to Stop Baltimore Police From Using War-Zone Surveillance System to
Spy on Residents
Alex Emmons - April 9, 2020

*The American Civil Liberties Union* filed a lawsuit on Thursday to stop
the Baltimore Police Department from testing one of the most expansive
surveillance regimes in any American city, an aerial photography system
capable of tracking the outdoor movement of every one of its 600,000

Last week the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved a police contract with
Persistent Surveillance Systems LLC to let the company and police fly three
airplanes outfitted with high-resolution cameras over the city. According
to the contract, the imaging systems can photograph up to 32 square miles
every second, allowing for the slow-motion reconstruction of virtually all
outdoor movement.

Baltimore police representatives have previously stated
that the intent of the Aerial Investigation Research program is for the
planes to fly simultaneously, allowing them to record imaging for 90
percent of the city.

In their complaint, lawyers for the ACLU call the system a
“society-changing threat to individual privacy and to free association” and
argue that it violates constitutional rights to privacy and free

“The data collected through the AIR program will amount to a comprehensive
record of the movements of Plaintiffs and nearly everyone in Baltimore —
facilitating an unprecedented police power to engage in retrospective
location-tracking,” the complaint says. “The AIR program would put into
place the most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an
American city, giving [Baltimore police] a virtual, visual time machine
whose grasp no person can escape.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a community organization called Leaders
for a Beautiful Struggle, which has advocated for racial justice and police
reform in the city, as well as by two other Baltimore activists and
community organizers. The ACLU argues that constant aerial surveillance
would “undermine the ability of LBS to carry out political activities
crucial to its mission.”

The Baltimore Police Department did not immediately respond to a request
for comment.

The deployment of the AIR program follows an all-too-familiar storyline of
police technology after 9/11, in which tracking equipment developed for the
U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan has been repurposed by the private
surveillance industry and sold to American police departments, which
quietly deploy it without public debate.

The technology used in the AIR program was developed for Air Force
reconnaissance drones in the late 2000s as part of a military project
called “Gorgon Stare <https://www.wired.com/2009/02/gorgon-stare/>.” Police
in Baltimore began testing the technology in secret in 2016, until Bloomberg
revealed that it was used to monitor protests in the aftermath of a police
officer’s acquittal on a murder charge in the death of Freddie Gray, who
suffered a broken neck in the back of a police van. After public outcry,
the program was temporarily shut down.

But after the company pitched city officials
on restarting the program last year, a test run was authorized. The pilot
program — which is intended to run for 180 days — includes some limitations
on how the technology can be used. It can only be employed to investigate
four types of crimes — homicide, shooting, armed robbery, and carjacking,
according to the contract — though the police commissioner can request its
use in “extraordinary and circumstances, on a case-by-case basis.”

The photo resolution is “limited to 1 pixel per person,” the contract
states, meaning that individuals and vehicles are represented as dots,
though Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said last month that the
technology has “the ability to upgrade the quality
<https://www.facebook.com/58771761955/videos/212014970074066/>” if needed.

With Maryland’s coronavirus shutdown orders keeping most people inside,
it’s unclear how the pilot program could produce an accurate picture of
outdoor tracking technology. But it seems to be intended as a proof of
concept for urban surveillance that could ultimately be deployed on a much
larger scale.

The costs of the test program in 2020 — $3.7 million, including hiring an
estimated 15 to 25 image analysts — will be underwritten by the foundation
of Texas-based billionaire philanthropist John D. Arnold, a former energy
trader and hedge fund manager, according to the contract.

“This isn’t the first time that local law enforcement has sought to use
technology that was originally developed for the military in war zones
abroad,” Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security
Project, wrote in an email. “But the Constitution clearly prohibits the use
of these spy planes against Americans here at home.”
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