Q&A: ACLU’s Jay Stanley

Baltimore Police ‘Spy-Plane’ Program Greenlit to Record Citizens’ Every Move 

By C.J. Thompson

First of two parts.

The Baltimore Police Department will launch a privately funded aerial-surveillance program next week after a federal court in Maryland ruled Friday against local activists and the American Civil Liberties Union and its state affiliate.

The groups argued the continuous surveillance of citizens would violate the First and Fourth Amendments. The Washington-based ACLU will appeal the ruling.

Under the program, Persistent Surveillance Systems will fly three manned Cessna planes over Baltimore for up to 84 hours per week. The planes, equipped with cameras, will conduct military-grade surveillance — continuously recording all outdoor movements. The footage will be utilized to track crimes after the fact.

The program’s $3.7 million cost is being paid by a wealthy Texas couple, John and Laura Arnold.

Baltimore city officials voted earlier this month to formally implement the six-month test despite the public outrage over a similar program police conducted secretly in 2016.

ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley warns that Baltimore’s program could set a precedent that could potentially end privacy and freedom as Americans now know it.

How does this program affect privacy?

It involves the government recording everything we do just in case we do something wrong.

In our society, the government has to have particularized suspicion that an individual has engaged in wrongdoing before your privacy can be invaded.

It’s an invasion of privacy to be tracked everywhere you go — all day, without suspicion.

Additionally, it raises the prospect of chilling effects: People will be afraid to engage in certain activities knowing they’re being recorded.

People would constantly wonder how they look to that eye in the sky, if they might be misperceived or flagged by some algorithm as suspicious.

That’s not the way that we want to live. 

Police argue that Baltimore has had more than 300 homicides a year for five years. They say this program may reduce those figures. Do you agree?

That’s a serious problem.

Criminology and sociology experts say there are a lot of complicated reasons for crime in a city like Baltimore. There are deep social problems that reflect deep historical inequities.

A lot of communities are over-policed and under-policed at the same time, subjected to constant police harassment over small issues while more serious investigations languish.

This is an attempt to solve complex social problems with brute force military-grade surveillance of an entire U.S. city.

It could create a precedent that will probably be applied around the country and really change American life. It’s also likely to be implemented with drones in years to come.

What about private citizens financing a law-enforcement surveillance system for a major city? 

In theory, we live in a democracy — and the police department is answerable to the community it serves.

If they want to institute a new surveillance technology that has the potential to change the balance of power between the government and the governed, it should go through a democratic process.

Then, the elected body (and public) can ask what the potential privacy effects are, what the costs are, how certain the benefits are.

Is the tech really going to work, or is it just a toy? Is it commensurate with our values?

What we’ve seen is that federal agencies will award grants. A local police chief gets this sack of money that just lands in his lap and doesn’t have to go through that local democratic process.

That’s what allowed the police department to start testing this system in Baltimore in complete secrecy the first time.

Authorities say the program is limited in scope. Do you agree?

I think they know this is a huge leap into uncharted territory for the human species.

They’re anxious to reassure people that privacy is top of their minds and privacy will be protected by measures A, B and C.

We often see those assurances made when somebody’s on the defense and trying to convince the public into accepting a new type of surveillance.

Over time, those assurances fall by the wayside because they’re inconvenient limits on the power of those doing the surveillance.

These assurances are insufficient to stop this from being an invasion of privacy.

One of the arguments the company and the city are using is that people can’t be identified because the camera resolution is not high enough to recognize who you are from the air.

But that’s fairly disingenuous. The whole point of the system is to identify people. 

Tuesday: Baltimore’s covert test run in 2016 and implications for other cities.

C.J. Thompson is a New York writer.