The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the city of Baltimore from rolling out a disturbing aerial surveillance program.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of a group of Baltimore community activists who have raised concerns about the introduction of a controversial technology known as wide-area aerial surveillance which involves stationing an aircraft equipped with ultra-high-resolution cameras over a city to track all visible pedestrians and vehicles within that city.
The ACLU writes:
Imagine a day in the future when everyone, from the moment they step outside their home, has to live with the knowledge that their every movement is being recorded by powerful cameras circling in the skies above. Not just where they work, shop, eat and drink, and whose homes they visit, but details about their political, religious, sexual, and medical lives—all captured and stored in databases without a warrant and available to law enforcement upon request.
That day is here.
The ACLU states in the lawsuit that the program would violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to freedom of association and privacy. The rights group argues that government tracking of everyone in a city would violate the Constitution’s ban on “general warrants,” which authorize searches under broad and vague criteria. The ACLU states that the systems violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and the First Amendment’s guarantees of the right to assemble. The ACLU also notes that the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that the courts’ role when interpreting new technology is to protect the “degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.”
The wide-area aerial surveillance technology—originally used for monitoring citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan in a program called “Gorgon Stare”—is yet another example of tools from the U.S.-led Global War on Terror making their way to American cities. Coincidentally, the company behind the technology, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), was founded by Ross McNutt, a former colonel in the U.S. Air Force who worked on similar programs in the military. McNutt and PSS are now preparing to roll out the same technology in the skies above Baltimore.
The company has been promoting the technology to local police for years. However, the Baltimore police department is the first to embrace the idea.
The ACLU warns that if McNutt and PSS succeed, the flood gates will be opened and additional companies would likely join the market. This would likely lead to a roll out of even more powerful technologies, including automated AI analysis, multi-spectral imaging, and night vision capabilities, not to mention much higher camera resolutions. The lawsuit also warns that the monitoring program would likely put activists, protesters, and dissidents of all kinds under surveillance.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think-tank that advances the public policy interests of Black people in Baltimore, Erricka Bridgeford, co-founder of the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 project to end gun violence in the city, and Kevin James, a community organizer and hip-hop musician.
This is not the first time surveillance planes have caused controversy in Baltimore. In November 2015, internal documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed the agency flew surveillance planes over Baltimore and Ferguson, MO during highly-publicized protests. The planes also operated thermal imaging equipment. The documents, obtained by the ACLU via Freedom of Information Act requests, outline how the bureau is using planes equipped with infrared and night vision cameras.
The release of the documents came after FBI Director James Comey confirmed to Congress that the agency flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson and Baltimore during the protests following the police killings of both Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
According to the FBI’s own flight logs, the agency flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 to May 3, 2015, comprising a total of 36.2 flight hours. The flights took place mostly at night and typically involved a Baltimore Police Department representative and an FBI agent. Evidence logs show that at least half the flights conducted video surveillance, and the FBI is apparently holding on to copies of these videos. Still other flights conducted “electronic surveillance,” but specific details were redacted.
Additionally, in September 2015, Anti Media reported on the existence of a fleet of surveillance aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that has been flying over various locations within the United States, as well as foreign destinations.
The ACLU’s lawsuit is an attempt to stop the expansion of these types of programs over American cities. If they fail and there is no public push back, Americans will soon have to contend with the reality that surveillance drones are watching their every move.
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