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Members of Congress want to know more about law enforcement’s surveillance of protesters

Lawmakers demanded more details about spy-grade technology, after a Predator drone was spotted over Minnesota.

A Predator drone with the Customs and Border Protection logo painted on the side.
Customs and Border Protection regularly uses Predator surveillance drones to surveil the border, but on Friday, one took a detour.
Gary Williams/Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.

Members of Congress want more information on the deployment of surveillance resources and technologies amid ongoing anti-police brutality demonstrations across the country.

In a Tuesday letter sent to leaders at several federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FBI, officials demanded that those agencies “cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests.” They pointed to several instances in which the press has documented federal agencies using concerning surveillance tactics in major American cities, pointing to aircraft that flew over Washington, DC, and temporarily expanded authority granted to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to conduct surveillance over protesters.

They also pointed to an instance when, during the first week of protests, a Predator surveillance drone operated by CBP diverted from its normal route along the Canadian border in order to circle the skies above Minneapolis. Before the drone flight, a third night of protests had escalated as thousands demonstrated following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a police officer pinned Floyd by the neck with his knee for several minutes. (The officer has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder ) And while federal authorities said the unarmed drone was there “to provide situational awareness,” the presence of a military-grade aircraft watching protesters in Minnesota added to an already anxious day in America.

A couple of hours before reports about the Predator drone over Minneapolis, President Trump had tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Though his use of this charged phrase with racist origins suggests a threat against the protesters, Trump later tried to walk back his statement — which was also hidden by Twitter for glorifying violence — and it seems unlikely that his rhetoric had anything to do with the drone flight. Still, to know that a drone was circling the protesters as the president was making these charged remarks is unsettling.

Since news of that drone’s flight of Minneapolis broke, Motherboard also uncovered that the drone, in particular, had been sent to fly over Minneapolis before. And earlier this month, members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security demanding more information about the use of CBP aircraft and personnel to surveil protests. The agency said at the time that Predator drone that flew over Minneapolis was there to help the police.

“Earlier today a US Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations unmanned aircraft system was preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis,” a spokesperson for CBP told Recode in an email. “The unmanned aircraft system provides live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.”

The spokesperson said that “arriving in Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks.” The CPB spokesperson also added that the agency “routinely conducts operations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to assist law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts.” The specific law enforcement agency that requested the drone was not named.

Here’s what else we learned about the flight. The drone CPB 104, which is an unarmed version of a Predator drone, departed from Grand Forks, North Dakota, around 9 am CT, according to data collected from the flight-tracking tool ADS-B Exchange. Flying at around 20,000 feet, it made a loose hexagon-shaped route around Minneapolis and then began to fly away from the city. The drone flight might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been spotted by Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter with the Project on Government Oversight, who shared the news in a tweet. Motherboard followed up with a fuller report.

This screenshot from the flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange shows how the Predator drone flew in a hexagonal pattern above Minneapolis before returns to base.
ADS-B Exchange

“No government agency should be facilitating the over-policing of the Black community, period. And CBP has no role in what’s happening in Minneapolis at all,” said Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. “This rogue agency’s use of military technology to surveil protesters inside US borders is deeply disturbing, especially given CBP’s lack of clear and strong policies to protect privacy and constitutional rights.”

As Guliani suggests, the drone’s deployment is part of a larger trend in which government agencies, including police, are using increasingly powerful surveillance tools for monitoring activists. The use of the military-grade drone technology also raises concerns about the federal government deploying sophisticated drone technology typically only used in war zones and along the border — an already highly alarming practice — to conduct surveillance operations inside the US.

“This is what happens when leaders sign blank check after blank check to militarize police, CBP, etc while letting violence go unchecked,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez in response to news of the drone flight on that day. “We need answers. And we need to defund.”

Surveillance tech deployed at the border is coming into the US

The technology used to monitor the US border has become increasingly high tech, and members of both parties have become interested in the idea of a “smart wall” along the border. While Trump has called for a physical border wall, officials have come to look at, and sometimes use, all sorts of technology, including lidar, artificial intelligence-powered cameras, facial recognition, and cellphone data monitoring to regulate people near or crossing the border.

Human rights advocates and civil liberties advocates have strongly opposed the use of such technologies, pointing out that they can exacerbate racial inequities and privacy violations.

But drones have been used at the border for more than a decade. As Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary reported, CBP has been using Predator B aircraft at the border since 2006. The CBP 104 drone has been in use since October of that year, according to a March 2007 report from Government Technology magazine that described how the new unmanned aerial system had been used to find people suspected of crossing the US border without authorization.

This document from CBP describes the various features of Predator drones, including CBP 104.
US Customs and Border Patrol

Meanwhile, CBP documents from 2012 identify the CBP 104 as a Predator drone equipped with radar and satellite communication links, not to mention radio communications with law enforcement. As the Washington Post reported in 2014, flight logs show how CBP has historically allowed its drones to be used by other federal agencies, such as the Coast Guard and the DEA.

In response to Recode’s request for comment, the CBP spokesperson also said that its air and marine operations aircraft is used throughout the country, not just at the border, and that it regularly works with federal, state, and local law enforcement. The spokesperson claimed that the drone has been used in humanitarian relief efforts as well as to help agencies like FEMA.

But the letter sent from Congress to DHS in June seeks more context, and lawmakers have requested a complete list of jurisdictions where DHS conducted or helped in the surveillance of protests, information about what DHS plans to do with the data collects about protesters, and details about whether any local police departments are working with facial recognition.

The US has a long history of surveilling protesters

The fact that the government uses a range of technology to surveil protesters, including black activists, is by no means new. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both surveilled by the FBI. But the technology that police departments and federal authorities now have access to is much more powerful than what was around in the 1960s. Some of these tools, like Predator drones, would not be out of place on foreign espionage missions, and now they’re increasingly deployed to monitor activists and protesters inside US borders.

Examples from recent years are especially alarming. Following the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Homeland Security kept tabs on the Black Lives Matter movement through organizers’ social media accounts, according to an Intercept investigation. Just a year later, the ACLU released a report detailing how companies, including Facebook and Twitter, provided social media data for a surveillance product that was marketed to law enforcement agencies as a way to track activists and protesters. The New York Police Department, specifically, has deployed a variety of tools over the years to surveil activists, including those involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement and Occupy Wall Street.

Aerial surveillance is also not a new tactic being used by cops, either. During the 2015 Baltimore protests following the death of Freddie Gray, the FBI used a spy plane to record the protests as well as smaller gatherings, according to the ACLU. Since then, the Baltimore police have fought for — and won — the ability to regularly use surveillance planes that are armed with cameras, despite the objections of activists and civil liberties advocates.

The Minneapolis Police Department is not different in its affinity toward surveillance technology. BuzzFeed reviewed the many types of surveillance the department likely has at its disposal. They include Clearview AI’s facial recognition software, automatic license plate readers, audio-based gunshot detection tools, and other data aggregation tools.

Still, as last month’s Predator drone flight suggests, it can be incredibly difficult to understand just how much technology law enforcement actually has access to at any point in time. Many of these tools are often hidden from public view, leading journalists and advocates to turn to require public records requests and lawsuits to learn more about how they’re used.

While CBP says the drone was directed away from Minneapolis, it is possible to track where the drone is now; its flight path is documented on this website. In the hours after lawmakers requested more information about how technology was being used to surveil Americans, the drone appeared to still be in flight, traveling a hexagon-shaped route close to the Canadian border.

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