Florida ACLU Condemns MDPD's Request for Widespread Surveillance Airplanes

Florida ACLU Condemns MDPD's Request for Widespread Surveillance Airplanes
Miami-Dade County Police Department

The Miami-Dade Police Department has already applied for a $500,000 Department of Justice grant to fly planes over the county that can record and track the movements of the city's population. These "wide-area surveillance" systems were originally developed to track insurgents planting car bombs during the Iraq War — but now the technology is being used on American civilians.

County documents show that MDPD and the county mayor's office applied for federal money to pay for the technology without getting county commission approval. On June 6, MDPD will ask the commission to sign off on the move retroactively.

But today, in response to New Times' breaking news about MDPD's request, the ACLU of Florida has released a statement condemning the department's attempt at building an all-seeing panopticon and asking MDPD to withdraw its request unless the department explains why it needs the program and adopts a set of strict privacy protections.

"This is not the way to adopt public policy — no system of surveillance should be put into place until it is first established that there is a need which this system addresses, and that there are protections in place for the privacy of the people of Miami-Dade County," Howard Simon, the ACLU of Florida's executive director, said today in a release. "The public must also be given the opportunity to weigh in about whether their leaders should so fundamentally change our community. There must also be a sunset process to review whether this system has achieved the stated goals, and, if not, to end the program."

(The Florida ACLU didn't respond to a follow-up call to discuss the surveillance program further.)

At the national level, the ACLU has fought the adoption of similar surveillance programs since at least 2013. The technology was developed by Air Force and MIT alum Ross McNutt, who called the program "Angel Fire" when he created it for the military in 2006. After leaving the public sector, McNutt founded Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) and travels the country pitching his technology to police departments around the nation. A few competitors to PSS now exist on the market.

Local departments pay a fee to McNutt's company, which then flies a series of Cessna planes over a target area constantly. The planes are equipped with high-quality megapixel cameras, and an artificial-intelligence program then stitches the videos together into a single, searchable video feed of an area measuring up to 32 square miles.

The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have warned that the wide-area surveillance technology is a massive leap from stationary security cameras, which capture only a small window of public life.

In its grant request, MDPD wrote that the system is intended to "generate leads, improve incident clearance rates, maximize convictions, and prevent crime." But in other cities where similar systems have been implemented, both people of color and political activists say cops have used the system to target them. In Los Angeles, PSS planes were flown over the mostly black neighborhood of Compton. Black residents in Dayton, Ohio, expressed similar concerns.

Most frightening, the Baltimore Police Department began using wide-area surveillance planes after the Freddie Gray riots in 2015. The city didn't even bother to tell its residents it had begun recording every single move they make in public. Local community leaders said the program felt like a betrayal of trust, given the fact that the department claimed it wanted to improve relations with residents. There are similar concerns in Miami-Dade: In the post-Trump era, the city has seen a surge of political activism atypical for sleepy, warm Florida. If implemented, surveillance planes will almost certainly be used to track political protests.

In his statement today, the ACLU of Florida's Simon warned that a surveillance program of this magnitude has the power to permanently alter the way citizens interact with their local government. He warned political leaders not to take that statement lightly.

"What the commission is being asked to do is retroactively sign off on the launch of a large-scale surveillance system that fundamentally changes the relationship between the people of this county and its government," Simon wrote today. "Until these protections for the rights and privacy of the people of Miami-Dade County are put into place, the grant request should be withdrawn.”
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.