In late October, a group of Maryland legislators met with police officials, attorneys, privacy advocates, and policy analysts to discuss creating a legal framework to govern aerial surveillance programs such as the one the Baltimore Police Department had been using to track vehicles and individuals through the city since January.
“What, if anything, are other states doing to address this issue?” Joseph Vallerio, the committee’s chairman, asked the panel.
“Nothing,” replied David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU. “Because no one has ever done this before.”
The Baltimore surveillance program broke new ground by bringing wide-area persistent surveillance—a technology that the military has been developing for a decade—to municipal law enforcement. The police department kept the program secret from the public, as well as from the city’s mayor and other local officials, until it was detailed in August by Bloomberg Businessweek. Privacy advocates, defense attorneys, and some local legislators called for the program to be suspended immediately, until the technology could be evaluated in public hearings.
But in the three months since the public discussion began, the police have continued to use the surveillance plane to monitor large events, such as the Baltimore Marathon, and essential questions remain unanswered. The police continue to classify the program as an ongoing trial, but the private company that operates it for the police—Persistent Surveillance Systems—doesn’t have a permanent contract and no specific regulations govern its operations.
Several local lawmakers have stressed the need for more oversight of the program at a time when the technology is spreading to private industry. But in the case of Baltimore, the administrative structure of the police department has complicated those efforts. Unlike most other major cities, the city of Baltimore doesn’t regulate its own police; when the department was founded in the mid-19th century, it was established as a state agency, which means its oversight falls to the Maryland General Assembly. The state legislature is in session for only three months each year, and it had adjourned before the surveillance program was revealed.
David Moon, a Maryland delegate from the Washington, D.C,. suburb of Takoma Park, says he and other legislators met during the summer to try to craft legislation that would require more public transparency when police departments use StingRay devices, which are cell phone tower simulators used to track individuals via their mobile phone signals. Now, he says, the legislators want to write the law so that it also applies to aerial surveillance programs. But any such measures would have to wait until the General Assembly’s 2017 session begins in January.