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Predator Drone over Minneapolis Stokes Surveillance Fears

A large drone flew over Minneapolis last week during protests about the death of George Floyd. The drone belongs to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but it's unknown who requested the aircraft.

A pair of Customs and Border Protection UAS aircraft
A pair of Customs and Border Protection UAS aircraft located at the southern border are standing by to air operations.
Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Democratic members of the House Committee on Homeland Security have requested documentation about a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone that was flown over Minneapolis on Friday during protests over the death of George Floyd.  

The request came via a letter yesterday to Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It cited concern about the “Constitutional rights” of Americans and asked for “all documents referring or related to the deployment of DHS employees and assets, including Customs and Border Protection employees and assets, to respond to protests.”

The CBP drone was identified by investigative journalist Jason Paladino on Twitter as it flew over Minneapolis at 20,000 feet. CNN reporters also claimed that they “witnessed at least one drone in the airspace above the city.” 

In an email to Government Technology, a CBP spokesperson said that an Air and Marine Operations (AMO) “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.” The drone was directed back to its base in North Dakota when the requesting partners, who were not named in the email, “determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness.”

“AMO carries out its mission nationwide, not just at the border, consistent with federal laws and policies,” the CBP spokesperson added. “During humanitarian missions AMO regularly deploys the unmanned aircraft system to assist FEMA in assessing hurricane affected areas, in coordination with the National Weather Service to capture imagery of storm impacted areas, and with federal, state and local partners to conduct search and rescue missions, in addition to its law enforcement mission.”

During a phone conversation with Government Technology, Adam Comis, communications director for the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the committee didn’t know if the drone was only requested by a federal agency. Government Technology emailed the Minneapolis Police Department about a potential local request, but was only told to contact CBP about its drone. 

A story from Motherboard indicated that the CBP aircraft was an unarmed Predator drone. The story also noted that CBP has utilized such drones for more than a decade. 

Armed Predator drones have been used by U.S. military in overseas wars. As such, Catherine Crump, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at University of California Berkeley, told Salon that she disagreed with the drone being used in Minneapolis last week. 

“[M]ass surveillance of protesters merely because they are exercising their First Amendment rights, or because a small handful may engage in unlawful activity, is oppressive and bad policy,” Crump said. “Today there are powerful technologies — automatic license plate readers, cellphone tracking devices — that can work to identify everyone who was in a given area. The police should not use these technologies in a dragnet fashion to sweep up protesters. And flying a predator drone over protesters is uncalled for, given the association between those drones and our wars in places like Afghanistan and Yemen.” 

In related news, last month Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a privacy bill that regulates law enforcement’s use of drone technology for surveillance. The law prohibits drone surveillance without a search warrant, though the bill provides several exceptions to that rule. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.