In recent months, Baltimore and St. Louis city officials voted unanimously to spare their residents from further invasions of their privacy by terminating a “panoptic aerial surveillance system” that was designed to protect soldiers on the battlefield.
From April to October 2020, Baltimore residents were subjected to a “panopticon-like system of surveillance” as a result of a partnership between the Baltimore Police Department and privately funded Persistent Surveillance Systems of Ohio (“PSS”). During that time, PSS flew surveillance aircraft over 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours each week. The images captured enabled police to identify and track specific individuals. While no PSS planes have flown over Baltimore since October, the surveillance system was troubling enough to prompt Baltimore’s spending board to terminate the contract with PSS in a unanimous vote.
On December 11, 2020, St. Louis Alderman Tom Oldenburg introduced legislation that would have forced the mayor and comptroller to contract with PSS to implement a surveillance system replicating the one in Baltimore. As the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s campaign coffers receive substantial funding from lobbyists for PSS, the proposed legislation was well received. But the Electronic Freedom Frontier (“EFF”) and other local advocates educated lawmakers and their constituents about the bill’s unconstitutionality. On February 4, 2021, the Rules Committee voted unanimously to issue a “Do Not Pass” recommendation.
But it appears the fate of the surveillance program will ultimately be decided in the courts. A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit initially upheld the program. But the full court withdrew that decision and has agreed to rehear the case en banc. EFF, the Brennan Center for Justice, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Freedom Works, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Rutherford Institute have all filed amicus briefs in opposing the program. EFF is hopeful the Court will find that the aerial surveillance program violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections against warrantless dragnet surveillance.
If the Court upholds the program, we may one day soon find ourselves yearning for a “return” to the “freedoms” of an Orwellian society.
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