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Government Exploits COVID-19 Crisis to Expand Surveillance on Citizens

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted April 27, 2020

With most of the country still under lockdown and COVID-19 still dominating all news, is it an appropriate time to expand the government's power to spy on its citizens?

One federal judge in Maryland believes so.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett cleared a pilot program that would surveil Baltimore City residents using spy cameras attached to airplanes.

Under the six-month pilot program up to three airplanes equipped with cameras will collect images at a rate of one per second. The Baltimore City Police Department defends the plan saying it will be useful in investigating shootings, robberies, and other violent crimes. Most other city officials (all of them Democrats) remain silent on the program.

The spy program was already secretly tested in Baltimore in 2016. City residents and officials were unaware of the test until local media revealed it.

Now, I'm sure that most Americans don't care about Baltimore City spying on its citizens. Heck, I'd even be willing to bet there's a large group of people who'd even applaud the move.

But here's the thing folks: If this kind of surveillance is being allowed in Baltimore, it's coming to your backyard next!

Oh... yes it is.

Area activists fighting against the spy program say it violates First and Fourth Amendment rights. Judge Bennett disagreed with their position saying, “The United States Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit have long upheld the use of far more intrusive warrantless surveillance techniques than the (Aerial Investigation Research) program.

In other words, the Baltimore City government can warrantlessly spy on its citizens because other programs have been more intrusive.

Anyone but me have a problem with that logic?

You should. Because this ruling now sets a specific precedent for using spy cameras attached to planes throughout the rest of the country.

The ACLU is already planning to appeal Bennett's ruling saying:

It is tragic and unacceptable that the failures of the Baltimore Police Department, and the city’s long-term unwillingness to address the root causes of crime, have now led to the decision to impose the most far-reaching mass surveillance program in American history here in Baltimore. If allowed to stand, this ruling is a decision that the city, and the country, will come to regret.

The program does nothing to prevent these crimes. Instead, it just makes it slightly easier to track and catch criminals. And, again, some might see this as a good thing. But you need to remember catching the bad guys is one thing. Successfully prosecuting them is another.

Quick story...

About 10 years ago I was chosen as a juror on a murder trial. After hearing both sides present their case, I thought it was crystal clear, this guy was guilty.

Yet most of the other jurors didn't exactly see it that way. They wanted to consider outside factors that had nothing to do with the evidence presented in court. Some of the things I heard other jurors say during deliberation include:

• “I just don't want to see another black man go to jail.”
• “That's not how they do it on CSI,” referring to the presentation of DNA evidence in court.
• “I prayed to Jesus last night and he told me he was innocent.”

Fortunately, logic prevailed in the end and the jury found the defendant guilty. He was later sentenced to 33 years in prison. (You can read the details and evidence presented in this case here).

Point is: Catching the bad guys and prosecuting them are always two different things. (I recommend that you investigate and educate yourself about jury nullification. And, for legal reasons, I am not endorsing jury nullification. I'm saying you should educate yourself about it).

So not only does Baltimore's surveillance program do nothing to prevent crime, but it also does little in the way of ensuring just outcomes.

But we're not done yet...

It's widely reported that Baltimore's new spy program will be paid for by philanthropic funding. But what's not so widely reported is who exactly is behind those philanthropic funds. And that is Texas-based Arnold Ventures LLC.

Arnold Ventures is a self-proclaimed philanthropic organization founded by billionaire John D. Arnold and his wife. Mr. Arnold is a former Enron trader who took the largest bonus in the company's history days before the company declared bankruptcy.

Mr. Arnold and his organization are the subjects of several controversies aside from Baltimore's new surveillance program. A March 2020 op-ed in The Hill wrote:

American billionaires are throwing their money around in increasing numbers in an effort to manipulate public policy to match their personal views. Hobbies are good for the super-wealthy, as is philanthropy. But using a personal fortune to bend criminal justice and bail reform to one’s ideological worldview does not serve victims or the public at large.

Honestly, that might be a little too harsh when it comes to Arnold Ventures. I followed Mr. Arnold on Twitter for a while. And although I understand that someone's Twitter personality doesn't always match their real personality, I don't think Mr. Arnold holds many hard-line ideological views. He seems pretty balanced if you ask me.

Nevertheless, I don't think it's appropriate for a Texas billionaire to pay for a government spy program in Maryland. Why not test the pilot program in his own state?

Moreover, I think it's wildly inappropriate not to seek wide public opinion about the program. A 2019 article in The Baltimore Sun claims, “Over 70% of Baltimore residents would support controversial surveillance plane, poll shows.” But dig past the headline and you'll find that:

1. The poll was conducted by a local religious group.
2. Only 500 of Baltimore's plus 600,000 residents were polled... that's 0.08% of the total population.

So let me fix The Sun's headline for them:

"Over 70% of 0.08% of Baltimore residents would support controversial surveillance plane, poll shows."

Doesn't have the same sting, does it?

A similar poll was conducted by the Baltimore Business Journal which found 82% of its readers who took the poll said they'd be comfortable with the city's surveillance program “as long as it's keeping people safe.”

Yet again, this represented the view of only 128 participants. And I question exactly how many of those polled by the Baltimore Business Journal are city residents.

The most egregious part about all this is the timing. Baltimore City residents are still under the governor's orders to remained locked down and maintain social distancing, meaning they can't protest. And with COVID-19 still dominating all news, this story is getting buried in the back pages of newspapers. Very few Baltimore residents are even aware the debate is still ongoing.

Do you think Baltimore City's plan is on the level? Are you comfortable with spy planes flying over your backyard? Is it appropriate for a judge to rule on such a controversial subject like public surveillance during the COVID-19 lockdown? Should Arnold Ventures test the program in their state first?

Tell us what you think about all this on Twitter @energyandcapital.

Until next time,
Luke Burgess Signature
Luke Burgess

As an editor at Energy and Capital, Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Luke is also a contributing editor of Angel Publishing’s Bull and Bust Report newsletter. There, he helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

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