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In Plane View: Is Baltimore’s Airplane Surveillance System Legal?

It recently came out that the Baltimore police have been secretly testing an aerial surveillance system since January 2016. This revelation raised more than a few eyebrows and plenty of questions.

Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, designed the system so that a small Cessna plane equipped with the equivalent of 800 video cameras operating at once, flies over the city, streaming a live feed of images to data operators on the ground. In a Bloomberg Businessweek video, McNutt explained how his staff reviews police reports of recent crimes and tracks the footage looking for visuals that may aid police in their investigations. McNutt said the overall goal is to assist law enforcement in lowering crime rates.

The secrecy of the whole operation sparked controversy and debate amongst Baltimore citizens, elected officials and legal professionals.

With that being said – do I think it’s a legal issue? No.

Personally, I think the surveillance plane is an excellent weapon for law enforcement. But, some argue that it’s a violation of our privacy rights.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project poses the question, “Do we want to allow the government to track everybody’s moves in an entire city at once with one camera in the sky?”

The fact of the matter is that surveillance operations similar to the plane surveillance Baltimore is using have been “okayed” by the Supreme Court. What’s done in the open is done in the open, and what you see from above does not violate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. We all know there are police cameras and security cameras in homes and businesses, and on street corners.

What people find most unsettling is that the public wasn’t informed that the plane was up there. Had it not been done so secretively, had it generally been known that it was happening, I think there would have been far less controversy.

On a separate note, it was both troubling and surprising that the pictures aren’t as clear as they could be. As a defense lawyer, I can see many ways to attack the validity of what is observed on the cameras until the technology is improved.

Now that the surveillance system is public knowledge, it should be considered fair warning. If you commit a crime, there’s a chance anyone can see you, whether it’s the Cessna, a Southwest Airliner or an individual in a private plane. It’s a risk you take, even if you’re in your own private fenced-in yard.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Andrew Radding, esq. at 410-986-0824 or aradding@adelberg.com.

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