HomeNewsSpy planes grounded in US following privacy battle

Spy planes grounded in US following privacy battle

Lawmakers in Baltimore have voted to end a controversial aerial surveillance program, which had seen spy planes constantly monitoring the city.

The program, set up by private firm Persistent Surveillance Systems, used camera-equipped planes to capture what was happening across a vast urban area.

The decision to abandon the scheme followed a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

It said the system disproportionately targeted people of colour.

“Baltimore’s termination of its unconstitutional spy plane program is a hard-fought victory for all Baltimoreans, especially for Black leaders who challenged this and communities of colour who are disproportionately targeted by this surveillance,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior lawyer for the ACLU.

But David Rocah, a senior lawyer with ACLU Maryland, said the legal case still needed to be heard.

“While we applaud Mayor Scott’s decision to abandon this unique threat to privacy… the law is clear that the city can’t intentionally duck accountability by suddenly bailing on its years-long defence of this technology on the eve of next month’s appeals court hearing,” he said.

Spy planes grounded in US following privacy battle
Spy planes grounded in US following privacy battle

The system used two Cessna propeller planes equipped with a 192 megapixel colour video camera system, which flew over Baltimore at altitudes of up to 9,000ft (2,740m) up to 11 hours a day.

Military surveillance

According to the police, the planes were used to locate witnesses, suspects and vehicles related to serious crimes such as murders and armed robberies.

In deciding to end the pilot, officials said that there was no proof it had been effective in its aim to reduce crime.

Councilman Mark Conway, who chairs the city’s public safety and government operations committee, said: “If we want to bring down violence in Baltimore, we need proven public safety strategies that respect residents’ constitutional rights while engaging communities holistically. The surveillance plane did not strike that balance.”

And Mayor Brandon Scott, who was a critic of the program, said the city would be better “investing in neighbourhoods and people, not just relying on some plane”.

The program, officially known as Aerial Investigation Research (AIR), initially ran in secret in 2016.

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It caused controversy because of its secretive nature, but also because it was run by a private company and privately funded by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic fund run by a billionaire former hedge fund manager.

Persistent Surveillance Systems was set up by Ross McNutt, an astronautical engineer. He first developed a surveillance system for the US military which was used in Iraq, and later decided to launch it to fight crime in cities.


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