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Baltimore Police Department Gets Sued Over Their Invasive Aerial Surveillance Program

Baltimore Police Department Gets Sued Over Their Invasive Aerial Surveillance Program

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.

Anete Lusina's picture

Anete Lusina is a photographer based in West Yorkshire, UK. You'll either find her shooting weddings, documentary, or street photography across the U.K. and Europe, or perhaps doing the occasional conceptual shoot.

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Welcome to George Orwell’s 1984. What’s next, a thinkcrime. The world keeps getting worse by the second. No attempt to understand, respect or give grace to the other guy. Just power, rules, laws, subjugation, authoritarianism.

With all due respect, it sounds like you're commenting without actually knowing anything about the program. Not that I 100% support it (see below), but your generalizations are clearly dramatic and uninformed. Ignorance should be a "thinkcrime".

Thoughtcrime is nothing new. Psychiatry existed when Orwell wrote 1984, and it's plain childish and ignorant to assume it's something looming on the horizon...

Sadly, but mass surveillance is a reality nowadays. I wonder did they use biometric identification technologies like https://recfaces.com/ with their drones or not? I think that there should be an investigation about it.

My hometown. Not the least bit surprised.

Take a look at the crime stats in Baltimore before complaining. Police agencies have used helicopters for years. Baltimore has cameras at many intersections in the city for years.

The violent crime is out of control and BPD is doing something to attempt to stop violent crime.

Well hell then, why not just have cameras in front of everyone's house? Make sure every square inch of the city is on video 24/7. Tap their phones. They might be committing crimes or setting up drug deals on those phones.

This bootlicking never ceases to amaze me, usually from the people who claim to want the government to "stay out of their business." But cops kill an unarmed black person and they rush to scream that blue lives matter.

I'm convinced certain people will never accept that many police departments - especially in large cities - are corrupt as hell. Well, at least until something happens to them, and then they'll care.

It should be noted that there are a lot of independent channels that would be participating in/researching this program, it's not government / police controlled. I know corruption exists within police departments, but it also sounds like you don't know much about the program either.

I mean, I know as much as what this article said.

Not a huge fan of private companies doing the exact same thing either, though.

Also, I was replying to a comment, not directly commenting on the article.

and you sound like a racist asshole, guess we all have problems

k cool


"Facts" without citation and massive inferential leaps are essentially opinions with a thin veil of delusion. Your name and attitude imply the rest of that particular picture...

Isn't anyone disturbed at all by the fact the government continues to come up with concepts to keep track of us? There's always a litany of good excuses. While we throw out our freedoms.

I used to work on the 7th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. 20 years later the airport experience is still miserable. All over 19 Saudi's who changed our lives forever.

The law can continue to generate good ideas on why they should keep track of us. But I really don't care. Freedom is more valuable. Who knows where we'll be in another 30 to 50 years, if not sooner. I imagine they're going to end up in our living room at some point down the road. And, you can bet your camera they're going to come up with reasons as to why it's a good thing.

The land of the Free?

That this was downvoted says everything about the level of bootlicking in this country

There’s no question that this is a contentious issue and whatever decision is made will certainly have ramifications for years to come. That being said, I think a far larger issue in the world today is misinformation, and this program has been yet another example of a hotrod topic that exposes poorly researched responses from both sides.

A few points to consider before commenting, and while I realize that many will still stick to their usual talking points in response to several of these, keep in mind that I am currently neither for nor against.

1) This is not a government-proposed, nor funded, program. It is currently being financed by private donors based out of Texas. While the organization is not without controversy, it should be noted that this is not being funded by tax dollars.

2) The lead image of this particular article is misleading, as it’s my understanding that drones are not the method of surveillance, nor is any of the surveillance “real time”. I believe this is an EXTREMELY IMPORTANT distinction that many will overlook when arguing against. As it’s been described, the program consists of 3 planes collecting data from 8500 ft during daylight hours. The data is collected by a private program that the police then have access to, reviewing past movements in order to investigate crimes that have already been committed. This is not 100% police / government controlled & operated.

3) Part of the funding covers independent research to evaluate the program and its effectiveness. I realize many will challenge the efficacy of this, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. Theoretically the success of the program will not be decided by the government or the police force.

4) Many people have argued that this violates privacy rights. Looking at this as photographers, we all (should) already know that nobody has a right to privacy in a public space. You could argue that surveillance collected of your back yard isn’t covered under the “public spaces” rule, and I wouldn’t disagree. At the same time, this part may all come down to what you’re “actually” concerned about. Are you concerned about something being recorded or it being used against you? That’s why we still have a legal system… if a defense attorney can show the evidence was collected “outside of a public space”, it would very likely be inadmissible in court.

5) The BPD has a history of abuse and coverups. This is not a matter of opinion or a “gray area”. It happened. Unfortunately, we like to categorize things in universal terms, so people tend to take a one-side-or-another approach rather than evaluating on a case-by-case basis. There are bad cops, there are good cops. Both sides should accept this reality and acknowledge it. Denial isn’t getting anybody anywhere.

6) Somebody sarcastically mentioned above that, well hell, let’s just put cameras in front of everybody’s houses. Ever heard of Ring? That’s already happening. And before you argue that this is strictly under “private” control, there are already neighborhood initiatives that submit this data to the police for review. Yes, you can argue that since it’s up to a private citizen whether or not to send this data to the police, ask yourself… if you live in a row home in the city, how much control do you really have? Does it matter if you refuse to send your video to the police if your next door neighbor goes ahead and sends theirs? Food for thought.

I think if history can teach us anything it’s that one of the easiest ways to lose control over an idea is to cling to it absolutely and without consideration for how the world might evolve around it. Sometimes the best way to keep things above board is to get ahead of the evolution rather than staunchly denying anything will ever change. Even if you’re right in theory, the consequences may be far more severe if you don’t prepare for the likelihood that you’ll lose the battle if you’re fighting on principle alone.

To reiterate, I’m not entering into this from a predetermined side. Philosophically I disagree with the implementation of an Orwellian system, but I also acknowledge that surveillance plays a key role in solving and preventing crime. The ideal scenario is obviously a balance; the problem is that the loudest voices on both sides are often either the most ill-informed or have the most vested in a particular outcome, which makes balance more of a chance occurrence than an actual goal.

Also, I live in Baltimore, so I’ve got more skin in this game than probably 98% of the people commenting here.

When you start saying stuff like "Are you concerned about something being recorded or it being used against you?" is where I say that you've already traveled too far into the gray area. And if you expect me to trust the legal system to sort that stuff out, I just have to laugh. Unless you're rich I suppose, then it would be ok.

And any sentence that begins with "Philosophically I disagree with the implementation of an Orwellian system" followed by "but" - I dunno man. I'd rethink that one.

Also, yes, Ring is absolutely not the same thing. Not a remotely close comparison to what I said.

I think the biggest problem I have with people who argue against it is that their reasoning is often riddled with exaggerations, generalizations, and all sorts of logical fallacies. I’m not saying that, in the end, whatever type of surveillance being discussed is necessarily the right thing to do, but it doesn’t make every argument “against” a good one. In fact, most of the time people ignore the nuances of what a program actually entails and go straight to 1984 like it’s a foregone conclusion. The problem is that not only is 1984 not just about surveillance (there are MANY other themes and manipulations that are required to create an “Orwell state”), but what it would take to get from whatever we’re talking about to that would be MASSIVE. So pretty much any discussion that involves 1984 or Orwell just becomes a “slippery slope” argument, which unfortunately doesn’t cut it. Programs like this have to be evaluated on their own merits, not just the thousand “what ifs” it would take to reach anything close to what you’re talking about.

Again, I’m not saying surveillance has always been used properly and that it’s never been abused, but that doesn’t make every instance of it automatically evil. That’s why we should have reasonable discussions to see if it’s possible to put enough checks in place to prevent misuse. If it doesn’t seem like that’s possible, then sure, we don’t support it. My problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to have reasonable discussions when people are plugging their ears with their fingers and screaming “ORWELL” at the top of their lungs.

For example, saying “And any sentence that begins with "Philosophically I disagree with the implementation of an Orwellian system" followed by "but" - I dunno man. I'd rethink that one.” is exactly the kind of statement that makes it look like you’re incapable of having an objective, well-reasoned conversation on the subject. Ironically, dismissing a statement based on the general dislike of a word or idea, rather than on the merits of what was actually said, is pretty Orwellian in itself. I’d rethink that one.

The reason ""Philosophically I disagree with the implementation of an Orwellian system BUT" is bad is because what you effectively said is that "philosophically" you disagree with it but in practice it can be helpful a small percent of the time.

I'm purely not willing to walk into that grey zone. I think there is a huuuge difference between surveillance like Ring that is in the hands of citizens and surveillance that is in the hands of the government.

And if you want to talk "slippery slopes" - what do you think this whole thing is? We've been on that slope for a long time, traveling much faster since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, so I'd rather not give it another push to accelerate it.

I don't care about Orwell in this context - I never even used the word other than quoting you.

Hahaha, that’s not even close to what I said. Which proves my point. Among other things, an Orwellian system would include round the clock, real time, in-home surveillance, an authoritarian government, ridiculous amounts of propaganda, doublethink, the list goes on. Nowhere did I even come close to saying “that system sounds like it could be helpful a small percentage of the time”. The problem here is that you’re conflating the general idea of surveillance (which exists in way too many forms and degrees to all be considered the same) with the entire package that comes with an Orwellian system. The rest of my statement is right there in black and white, which is that some surveillance can be useful for preventing and solving crimes. In no way does that even remotely resemble saying an Orwellian state is useful some of the time. You’re keeping 2 separate concepts too closely together in your mind to talk about them objectively. And regardless of whether you used the term first or not, the idea behind your argument is the same.

I think people focus so much on the surveillance aspect of this that they lose sight of the real issue: oversight. Pretty much any component of a government or society can be misused if it’s done behind closed doors. But when it comes to surveillance people just argue about cameras and forget that there are plenty of other areas in government that function with oversight. The discussion should be concentrated how that would work. If checks and balances are in place, that addresses the root of the problem.

Case in point:

“I'm purely not willing to walk into that grey zone. I think there is a huuuge difference between surveillance like Ring that is in the hands of citizens and surveillance that is in the hands of the government.”

In the case of Ring, you don’t seem to care that the hardware is in place, you just care how it’s being used. I don’t see this as being any different. Interestingly, in the case of government surveillance, people most often object to the first step (installing the hardware) because they fear that it will eventually be co-opted by power-hungry authoritarians. Why doesn’t your slippery slope argument account for the possibility that the government will eventually require all Ring devices to be connected to a network they control? I’m not saying that will happen, but you seem to have a gap in your position. Why can one system that isn’t currently being abused be deployed but not allow for the possibility that another system could be deployed without abuse?

"In the case of Ring, you don’t seem to care that the hardware is in place, you just care how it’s being used." Um, yes. That is absolutely true. Huge difference between personal home security hardware existing and the government using it. So, yes, precisely - at least the basic idea of it. I have my doubts about how it is used right now, though.

To be clear: I don't like Ring either given that it is controlled by Amazon. And less than two months ago the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into Ring data sharing with law enforcement (which strangely sounds exactly like what you say this whole thing is). Not sure where you've gotten the idea that I'm just fine with Ring (or ever said that it wasn't or couldn't be abused); we aren't talking about Ring though. It already exists and is not the topic of this article. Just because it exists does not mean something else worse should exist. That's LITERALLY what a slippery slope does.

Ring is also why your idea of "oversight" by a private company makes me laugh. I don't want any private company overseeing the government. That's a hilariously terrible idea.

You seem to be hung up on these things I never said or brought up, like Orwell or Ring - it's a nice way to distract from addressing the actual topic, but I'm tired of it. Just because one thing exists and is not good doesn't mean I am fine with a second not good thing existing. Is that clear enough?

Ok I'm done with this.

My parents grew up in Nazi Germany. They shared their experiences as teenagers in the 30's and 40's. As I reflect on the trajectory of our society, I am scared and anxious. Hitler would have loved to have this level of information. As would Stalin. The communist societies today would love it to control their detractors. World history is full of examples where governments are responsible for the deaths of millions. Typically, those travesties are committed by governments in the name of maintaining civil law and order.

So I am concerned about the millions of devices in our possession which record all kinds of information, and the surveillance programs under any guise. The ever increasing use of credit cards that capture every financial transaction. All can be used to track the individual, what they do, and when they do it. All provides more information and power to government. And let's face it... do you really trust that the people in government are altruistic and are looking out to protect your and my freedoms? History would suggest that is rarely the case. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I would rather not.

I 100% respect where you’re coming from given your family’s background and I can understand why somebody with that experience would be inclined to resist anything that reminds them of what happened in the past. That being said, I’m still not so sure I agree that proceeding with a program like this would lead to the practices you’re concerned about.

The thing is, those regimes came about without this technology even existing, which means it’s not technology that caused them. Consolidation of power, censorship, misinformation… these are all far more serious concerns than surveillance technology because they’re all much more directly tied to the formation of authoritarian regimes. I think the question is, if there’s protection against those issues, is it possible for the surveillance component to exist as a legitimate crime fighting/prevention tool?

“The communist societies today would love it to control their detractors.”

I mean, the argument here isn’t whether this technology should be invented… it already exists. And implementing it in a communist society isn’t what we’re talking about.

“So I am concerned about the millions of devices in our possession which record all kinds of information, and the surveillance programs under any guise…. All provides more information and power to government.”

Agree that there are risks; however, I think you’re missing another angle to this, which is that the millions of devices in our possession have already acted as a check against abuses of power. Every person now has the ability to record their interactions with authority figures, and misconduct has been exposed (and prosecuted) as a result. Some would argue that it’s the mere existence of this misconduct that’s cause for concern in a program like this… I would argue that it’s a proper system of checks and balances and oversight that we should be discussing in both cases. Not, “cameras vs. no cameras”.

“And let's face it... do you really trust that the people in government are altruistic and are looking out to protect your and my freedoms?”

Not at all, which is exactly why my focus is primarily on the concept of checks and balances, not “is this camera going to oppress the country”. Altruism isn’t necessary as long as there are enough eyes on things. The problems come about when people can abuse systems behind closed doors. If we’re diligent about not closing the doors, I have to wonder if we can start discussing the benefits of such programs rather than shutting them down on the basis of how they could be used in the future if all of our other, more important, protections have failed.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Completely agree, which is why it’s important to understand the nuances of how these tragedies came about. Dictatorships don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere just because surveillance exists. They occur when there’s a consolidation of power, a suppression of information, and no free press. Surveillance as a means to maintain this control is something that occurs later… and honestly, given that the technology already exists, if all of those other things came to pass, the powers that be would implement it themselves anyway. So again, I don’t see the installation of a limited (not real time) surveillance system used to target crime (and properly overseen by multiple parties) as a realistic means to a dictatorship in the United States.

I’m not saying there won’t be hurdles and that the system will be perfect (probably not), but I’ve still yet to hear any responses against it that aren’t based on fear mongering and slippery slope arguments. I’m more than happy to entertain both sides, but regardless of whether you’re for or opposed, I believe if people want to preserve free societies they need to do their diligence and have cogent arguments to support their positions. Not to minimize the past, but if the response to every crime fighting tactic is “Hitler” and “1984”… I’m sorry, but you’re likely to lose. And the thing is, you could still be right in your opposition… but if you can’t articulate it, you’ve done a disservice to your cause.

A bit pedantic, don't you think?