Privately-funded aerial surveillance program begins in Baltimore

by WorldTribune Staff, May 11, 2020

Baltimore police on Friday launched what the city’s police commissioner described as an aerial surveillance “experiment” which records the movements of everyone in the city during the day.

‘There is no expectation of privacy on a public street, a sidewalk,’ Baltimore’s police commissioner said. / YouTube

The privately funded surveillance plane, known as the Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) Pilot Program, is operated by an Ohio-based company and is paid for by a Texas billionaire, WBAL-TV reported.

The $3.7 million program will operate on a trial basis for six months. The contract narrows the focus of the surveillance to shootings, homicides, robberies and carjackings, Baltimore police said.

Images are stored for 45 days and can be used only for criminal investigation.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he was “going into this with an open mind and let the data speak for itself. And rather than have an opinion or an expectation, I don’t want to get my hopes up or anybody’s hopes up. But let’s look at this as an experiment.”

Harrison said he sees no privacy concern.

“There is no expectation of privacy on a public street, a sidewalk. It can’t film inside private places or beyond walls, and while you are outside, there is no expectation of privacy,” Harrison said.

The total budget for the program is $3,690,667, all paid for privately.

The American Civil Liberties Union lost a court battle to keep the program grounded, but the organization has already appealed, WBAL-TV reported.

“It’s the most comprehensive surveillance ever imposed on an American city in the history of the country,” ACLU of Maryland attorney David Rocah said. “It’s the virtual equivalent of having a police officer follow a resident every time they walk out the door, and if that happened in real life, all of us would understand the huge privacy implications in doing that.”

The ACLU said the federal appeals court has agreed to expedite the appeal, and arguments could be heard over the summer.

“This is the second life of this program in Baltimore. It first operated in secret in 2016 under then-Commissioner Kevin Davis,” WBAL-TV I-Team reporter Jayne Miller wrote. “Now, it’s more public, but the debate remains the same: Is it an invasion of privacy or an effective crime-fighting tool?”

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