Rep. Aldridge: Pump the Brakes on Spy Plane Program

click to enlarge St. Louis is considering a spy plane program that would surveil the city from the air. - FLICKR/CORY W. WATTS
St. Louis is considering a spy plane program that would surveil the city from the air.

St. Louis continues to ignore the root causes of crime and invest in resources that do nothing to provide relief but will further disenfranchise black communities. This week’s example? Spy planes.

In this very moment where St. Louis is set to close down multiple schools and residents are dying from COVID, we saw Alderman Tom Oldenburg introduce a bill and a contract in that bill that would establish spy planes over the city of St. Louis. The contract was negotiated in secret.

Who negotiated these terms? What will they do with the data they collect? I am a state representative who lives in the 78th district, and I was not consulted on the matter that directly affects the people I represent and, quite frankly, my own home and sense of wellbeing.

Will I be a target for government surveillance because I stood up for justice and police accountability? That’s not a new move to block the movement. This year we saw spy planes monitoring protesters across the country.

How much money was wasted when we have families suffering from unemployment and hunger that has only gotten worse since the pandemic. In St. Louis, we’ve already spent nearly $4 million over the past three years on surveillance. Are we safer? In regards to spy planes, was the community asked how they feel about spy planes continually flying over their homes, watching every move they make?

St. Louis and my district's people have a right for more answers and an informed debate before any mass surveillance capable technologies, like spy planes and facial recognition, are acquired or utilized. Those technologies will be targeted at black and brown people and often misidentify people of color. A recent government study found that many facial recognition algorithms falsely identified black and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more than white faces. Black women were more likely to be misidentified. Innocent people could end up in jail because of this. We need controls in place so this doesn't happen and is not abused. Frankly, we need to hit the brakes on this idea and get a privacy policy in place first. Is that really too much to ask?

The city of Baltimore put this same program with the same company, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), in place and it has already been grounded. An independent audit found that police lied about almost every aspect of the program and how it was being used. They lied about deleting the data after 45 days, they lied about how they were tracking people and their family members’ homes.

St. Louis already has trust issues with our police department, and this could make that worse. This technology was originally designed for warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq! If these planes are going to be monitoring us, then we, the people have a right to watch what they are doing, how it is impacting us and being used against us. While I would rather our resources go to attacking the root cause of crime, such as poverty, access to mental healthcare and quality education, if they are going to go forward with this, we need basic accountability.

Alderwoman Annie Rice has proposed Board Bill 95, which would create a process for approving the use of surveillance technology that is transparent and open to your input. Board Bill 95 would allow this technology to be used but build public trust by seeking community consent rather than shoving it down our throats with no accountability. When our city government decides to implement massive surveillance that impacts our daily lives, we not only deserve a seat at the table, we should be in the process of building that table. We need to pass Board Bill 95 and say a big “hell no” to BB 200 if and until St. Louis establishes a framework to protect the privacy of residents.

Rasheen Aldridge is the state representative for Missouri's 78th District.
Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.