Tell the Board of Alders: Don’t Turn St. Louis into a Panopticon Testing Ground
Persistent Surveillance Systems hopes to turn the streets of St. Louis into a testing ground for their panoptic aerial surveillance system. Despite significant concerns from St. Louis City officials, and a history of the vendor leaking unvalidated program information to the media, Ward-16 Alderman Tom Oldenburg is working with the vendor and their lobbyists to force local adoption.
Ask your Board of Alders representative to take a stand in support of the privacy and safety of the people of St. Louis. Tell them to vote ‘NO’ on Board Bill 200.
At Tuesday evening’s public testimony, twenty-six of the thirty speakers opposed the aerial panopticon. But the Board’s Public Safety Committee still advanced an ordinance that would require the St. Louis Metro Police Department (SLMPD), and Mayor’s office, to enter into a three-year contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) to fly three surveillance planes over the city for up to 18-hours a day.
The ordinance claims that the system would “build trust between community members and law enforcement by increasing accountability and by solving and deterring violent crime.” Surveillance technology rarely does so. Further, SLMPD has not publicly backed the ordinance, and the ordinance’s sponsor acknowledged the City Counselor had not reviewed the contract and the City’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee had not been consulted.
A full Federal Appeals Court in Virginia recently agreed to hear arguments that Baltimore’s Persistent Surveillance Systems pilot program violates the privacy guarantees of the Fourth Amendment. The ACLU sued to block that program on behalf of two prominent community activists and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle—a local organization that advances the needs of Baltimore's Black community through youth leadership development and policy advocacy. In that case, EFF filed a friend-of-the-court brief, joined by the Brennan Center for Justice, Electronic Privacy Information Center, FreedomWorks, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Rutherford Institute.
As the U.S. Supreme Court held in their watershed ruling in U.S. v. Carpenter, location information “provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his familiar political, professional, religious and sexual associations.” The aerial surveillance program that would be mandated by Board Bill 200 creates a detailed historical record of the location information for the population of an entire American city. This gives law enforcement the power, without a warrant, to retroactively surveill any St. Louis resident for 18-hours a day for up to 45 days.
When the company's owner appeared before an aldermanic panel in October 2019 to unveil the idea, the cost was pegged at $7.5 million. It was expected that John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire couple from Houston, would pick up the bill. That seems less likely given a recent letter from the Arnolds’ organization to Ald. Oldenburg, stating that public funding must be consistent with “a demonstration of strong political support” and “strong community support” for the plan.
It is imperative that we make it clear today that the people of St Louis will not be guinea pigs in PSS’s $7.5 million experiment in how far the Fourth Amendment can be eroded by aerial surveillance technology. Contact your Board of Alders representative now. Tell them to vote ‘No’ on Board Bill 200.
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