The U.S. Flies Drones and Spy Planes Over American Cities to Surveil Protesters and Maybe More

News and Analysis

As the civil protests in the U.S. continue, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported that a military-class drone was surveilling the protesters in Minneapolis in late May.

The drone was operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and flew at the altitude of 6 km (20,000 ft) in a hexagonal shape. Notably, the Minneapolis downtown that was under drone surveillance is outside of the area where CBP is authorized to operate. For now, it is still unclear which agency has authorized the operation.

Inside the Drone

The POGO also reported that the drone designated Predator B was equipped with electro-optical infrared cameras, landscape-change hi-res scanners, and a radio system.

Still, the watchdog noted that while the equipment above is a standard package, the drone can also be equipped with devices that geolocate cell-phones.

Martin Shelton of Freedom of Press Foundation also noted that “it’s likely that some of these planes are outfitted with a Dirtbox or a similar technology,” which is designed to intercept calls and messages, as well as identify phone numbers.

While there is no evidence that such devices have actually been used, there are reasonable concerns that their security is not sufficient.

Data Protection and Privacy Are Not on the Table

“The agency has failed to safeguard surveillance video and photographic data collected through this drone program, leaving the data exposed for potential abuse,” the situation analysis from the POGO reads. 

This view is echoed by an earlier report titled Protecting Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Programs by the Department of Homeland Security. In 2015, the department advised against collecting or retaining data gathered by drones “ solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution.”

Three years later, though, the general inspector of the Homeland Security stated that CBP “has not ensured effective safeguards for surveillance information, such as images and video, collected on and transmitted from its unmanned aerial systems.”

Meanwhile, CBP acknowledged that they have been flying the drone saying that it was used to provide assistance to ground law enforcement “giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.”

CBP was not the sole agency to use the aid of unmanned aerial vehicles, though. The Associated Press reports suggest that the FBI and some other federal law enforcement agencies fly surveillance planes over American cities that are technically owned by front companies with confusing ownership.

The House Reacts

The news prompted certain U.S. lawmakers to voice their protest and request greater accountability from the government.

On top of that, CBP received letters from the House Committee on Homeland Security and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that requested the agency to provide details as to the employment of the drone.

Echoing those concerns is the statement from Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she said:

“CBP shouldn’t be flying drones over American cities, period, especially given the agency’s lack of existing privacy protections and the impact that the use of military technology will have on First Amendment rights.”

Meanwhile in China

Using drones to surveil people is not novel, though. China has been known for using the drones and other remotely-controlled flying devices on a mass scale for years. Some of those drones, to an astonishing proof of an urban legend, were actually disguised as birds.

China uses drones to track down minorities like Uyghur Muslims or fugitives, as well as control traffic and monitor students during entrance exams to prevent cheating. Just as in the U.S., China also employs drones to maintain control over the border and trace illegal crossings.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the number of drones over Chinese cities and rural areas has increased dramatically. Some of them are used not just for surveillance but also for public announcements. Certain reports, like that of the South China Morning Post, suggest that drones are also used for the facilitation of medical inspections.

That being said, the role of unmanned aerial vehicles has become much greater in civil life over the past few years. This raises the question of government accountability on top of the more obvious one on maintaining the privacy of personal lives. The answers to those questions are unfortunately yet to be found.

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