The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is currently awaiting the response from the court after having been sued over their recently approved deal to use drones for spying on the city's residents.
Drones might be a great addition for photographing or filming weddings and commercial work, but what happens when they are used for constant citizen surveillance, opening up the door for additional lack of accountability in a city that already has a bad history of racism? It is unknown whether that was a point of concern for Baltimore officials who, on April 1, 2020, approved a deal between the Baltimore Police Department and Persistent Surveillance Systems, an Ohio-based company, to allow constant surveillance of citizens using drones with high-resolution cameras.
This pilot program hasn't had a chance to take off just yet because The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the BDP. David Rocah, the senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, expressed his concerns over the case:
It is equivalent to having a police officer follow us, each of us, outside all the time in case we might commit a crime. If that happened in real life, everyone would clearly understand the privacy and First Amendment implications, and it would never be tolerated.
The cause for concern is also tied to the large area these drones can cover, which is up to at least 90% of Baltimore's land area. The ACLU worries that this can be used in conjunction with the BDP's ground cameras and license plate readers and all the subsequently received data would be used to reveal detailed information about the citizens' identities and activities.
The Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison doesn't deny that police officers will be able to gain this additional access and instead sees it as a positive. At a public hearing regarding this program, Harrison said that "this actually can serve as a force multiplier for the police department and perhaps can be used as an investigative tool while we are practicing social distancing."
In response to this, Rocah illustrates how this type of surveillance program can potentially further create unfair and disproportionate targeting of people of color. Noting the already bad history of racism in the city, he says that Baltimore should be the last place to pilot a program like this. Furthermore, should a project like this be accepted as the new norm, it is likely to spread across other law enforcement agencies across the country.
Currently, the pilot program is put on hold while the court reviews the lawsuit. A decision will be issued by April 24, 2020.
Lead image by Alejandro Pena, used under Creative Commons.