Apparently, the government was watching. The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used helicopters, aeroplanes, and drones in 15 cities to monitor demonstrations that protested the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a police officer knelt on his neck to restrain him.
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The government’s purported use of surveillance aircraft to monitor protests in cities such as Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Minneapolis has set off alarm bells at civil liberties organisations and in Congress. However, the Times report suggests that the surveillance was far more widespread than previously reported. Most of the surveillance was carried out via planes and helicopters. Nonetheless, officials used drones at two protests in Minneapolis and Del Rio, Texas.
According to the Times, government officials logged at least 270 hours of surveillance footage. DHS also deployed aircraft in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, among other cities, and sent footage in real time to control centres manned by Air and Marine Operations, a part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Air and Marine Operations then sent the footage it took to a network managed by DHS called the “Big Pipe.” Footage on the Big Pipe can be accessed by other federal agencies and local police departments for use in future investigations.
The news comes during a tense time for federal law enforcement and the military, which have come under fire for their roles in controlling and monitoring recent protests. One the most scrutinised events has been the incident at Lafayette Square near the White House, otherwise known as the time when the U.S. Park Police cleared out protestors so that President Donald Trump could take a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a bible.
“The worst part for me is when we’re made out to be storm troopers,” David Fulcher, the deputy director for air operations for CBP’s National Air Security Operations Centre in Grand Forks, North Dakota, told the Times. “We believe in peaceful protests.”
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CBP officials stated that the aircraft were used to provide “an eagle-eyed view of violent acts and arson,” presumably a reference to the unrest that occurred in some places which saw clashes with police, buildings and cars set afire, and looting. The Predator drone used in Minneapolis was not armed and did not have facial recognition technology, officials said, adding that it flew at a height that made it impossible to identify individuals or licence plates.
“The legend of the Predator — the all-seeing, all-knowing, hover-outside-your-window Predator — it’s just not accurate,” Fulcher said. “The technology is not there.”
In addition, Air and Marine Operations officials said that agency protocol prevents infringement on the right to protest. Because of this, drones are not allowed to fly lower than 5,791.20 m, which supposedly ensures that the “electrical optical-infrared ball” on the drones doesn’t see faces, eyes, or hair colour. Drones can track the movements of protestors or looters, tell law enforcement at the scene where they should go, and detect if someone is wearing a backpack or in possession of a rifle.
When it comes to privacy, Fulcher told the Times that surveillance footage on the aircraft and in control rooms is overwritten after an average of 30 days by new footage. Nonetheless, video feeds and radar images sent to Big Pipe can be analysed by DHS intelligence officers and stored for up to five years. The video can also be provided to federal agencies or police departments if they demonstrate that they need it for criminal investigations.
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The revelations are alarming. Some civil liberties experts told the Times that the surveillance aircraft could discourage people from protesting. Nearly three dozen Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have stated that government surveillance has a chilling effect and has led to an increase in downloads of encrypted messaging apps as well as an uptick in news articles that show protestors how to protect their privacy.
“Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration,” Congressional Democrats said in a letter to the heads of the FBI, the National Guard Bureau, the Drug Enforcement Administration and CBP on June 9. “The fact that the agencies you lead have created an environment in which such [news] headlines are common is, in and of itself, an indication of the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans.”