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Spying on high

By M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Spotlight | May 20, 2020

MADISON — Worried about the potential for abuse that red-light and speed-enforcement cameras pose?

The next chapter of Big Brother is being written by a federal judge who sees no problems with high-tech aerial surveillance cameras.

Citing previous court rulings allowing camera surveillance — sans warrants — and violence in Baltimore, Judge Richard D. Bennett last month gave his blessing to a police pilot program known as Aerial Investigation Research. AIR, as it is cutely called, will collect images of vehicle and pedestrian movements across just about every part of the city for the foreseeable future, according to a joint report by Baltimore Magazine and the Pulitzer Center.

It’s a spy plane, but Bennett agrees with the Baltimore Police Department that the constitutionally questionable initiative will help fight crime. The PD, according to the report, insists the eye in the sky is “simply a creative, technological assist” to its pursuit of bad guys. Critics, including the ever left-leaning ACLU, sought to stop the program, which they assert is an assault on personal privacy rights  and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable government searches.

Bennett didn’t see it that way, and ruled against a temporary injunction.

“In a city plagued by violent crime and desperately in need of police protections, the public interest clearly does not favor the imposition of a preliminary injunction blocking constitutionally sound police programs,” Bennett wrote in his opinion. “The AIR pilot program may proceed.”

Now, the noisy surveillance planes aren’t just a privacy concern. They’re also irritating citizens.

Maggie Sabo is among several Baltimore residents who have complained about the planes. She told Baltimore Brew that her once-peaceful time in her garden has been spoiled by the loud droning noise from which there seems to be no escape. Sabo is in the direct flight path of the overhead spies.

“It’s the same exact flight path for five hours at a time. While all of us are gardening, we just hear it buzzing constantly,” said Sabo, who also told the publication that many people move to her Garwyn Oaks neighborhood for its quiet streets.

“It feels really shitty, like we’re being targeted,” the 40-year-old said.

As Baltimore Brew reported, “The small Cessna, outfitted with a bank of cameras recording everything on the ground within its range, began flying over Baltimore on May 1, pitched by its backers as a crime-fighting tool.”

Baltimore Magazine noted that a “secretive, publicly undisclosed iteration of the program—first reported by Bloomsberg Businessweek in 2016 after a tweet inquiring about the strange constant circling of planes overhead—was halted amid condemnations from civil liberties advocates.”

But one federal judge has given the green-light to warrantless areal flying. What city and its citizens will be targeted next?

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