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Democratic Coalition Pushes to End Aerial Protest Surveillance

In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and other federal officials, 35 members of the U.S. House of Representatives asked that law enforcement agencies stop surveillance flights over protesters.

by Douglas Perry, The Oregonian / June 16, 2020
Shutterstock/enzozo

(TNS) — Federal law-enforcement agencies are conducting airborne surveillance of the protests against police brutality that are taking place across the country — and Democratic lawmakers want them to cut it out.

On Tuesday, 35 members of the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and other federal officials about the flights.

They said aircraft from the FBI and National Guard, sporting infrared and electrooptical cameras, flew over protests in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, and that the FBI also may have sent aloft in the nation’s capital “Cessna 560 aircraft equipped with ‘dirtboxes,’ equipment that can collect cell phone location data.”

The lawmakers also said Customs and Border Protection flew drones over protests in Detroit, Minneapolis and San Antonio that collected live video feeds. They said they’re also aware that federal agencies are using Stingray drones, “which mimic cell towers to collect location, call, text and browsing data of nearby cellular devices; facial recognition technology; and automated license plate readers.”

In an earlier letter to the acting director of Homeland Security, some of the same Democratic lawmakers pointed out that the Customs and Border Protection’s drone that flew over Minneapolis on May 29, 2020, was “far outside the bounds of CBP’s jurisdiction. Federal law authorizes CBP to conduct its missions within a ‘reasonable distance,’ not to exceed more than 100 air miles inland, from an external boundary of the United States.”

Privacy advocates have warned protesters to be aware of the surveillance activities that might be deployed against them. Harlo Holmes of the Freedom of the Press Foundation told Wired last week that “protesters who want anonymity [should] leave their primary phone at home” and take a “burner” phone instead. The magazine added that Holmes and others recommended that protesters should keep their phones off whenever possible “to reduce the chances that it connects to a rogue cell tower or Wi-Fi hot spot being used by law enforcement for surveillance.” They also favored using end-to-end encryption.

In the letter to Wray and other federal officials, the Democratic lawmakers insisted the surveillance of demonstrations “are significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans. We demand that you cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests.”

The lawmakers suggested the federal government’s actions might also contravene the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which safeguards “the right of the people to be secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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