May 8, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) As the Surveillance State grows, protesters and activists are increasingly the subjects of scrutiny by law enforcement on the local, state, and federal levels. Recently, Baltimore resident Benjamin Shayne noticed a curious plane flying overhead, circling the area repeatedly. The plane’s movements happened to coincide with the protests in the days following the death of Freddie Gray.
So Shayne decided to ask the internet what they thought, tweeting, “Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?”
A former employee with the American Civil Liberties Union happened to see the tweet and was able to identify the plane, a Cessna 182T, and its exact flight path and registered owner, NG Research, based in Bristow, Va. The former ACLU employee contacted the ACLU in Maryland, who then passed it on to the national ACLU.
In response to the revelations, the ACLU has now filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service seeking information about these flights. They also filed a FOIA request with the FAA to attempt to obtain the flight plans.
Activists and civil liberties advocates fear that the authorities may have been making use of emerging technologies, in an attempt to not only monitor the protests for potential violence, but to actually spy on activists’ conversations.
This would not be that difficult, after all. In late 2014, the Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of a cell-phone monitoring program being operated by the U.S. Marshals Service using small planes. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays. (For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.)
The so-called “Dirtboxes” (DRT) are supposed to be used for criminal investigations, but the ACLU says they can collect data from tens of thousands of people on each flight. The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice and FBI but has yet to receive any additional information. The EFF has now filed suit against the DOJ and FBI.
In early March of 2015, it was also revealed that the CIA has been working with the Marshals on the program. Over the last ten years, the U.S. Marshal’s Technical Operations Group worked with the CIA’s Office of Technical Collection to develop the technology. The agencies have spent more than $1 million developing the technology.
The Washington Post writes about another mass surveillance technique that uses aircraft. Known as “Wide-Area Surveillance,” it involves high-resolution cameras installed on planes to monitor entire cities. The Post writes:
” Every moving pedestrian and vehicle can be tracked: the beginning and end of everyone’s journeys, and the route taken in between. This gives the authorities the power to press “rewind” on anybody’s movements, and learn a lot of intrusive things about how they live their life. Among the companies offering this technology are major defense contractors working for the Pentagon and an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is trying to sell it to local police departments.”
An unnamed “government official” told the Post that the flights were part of an operation being handled by the FBI at the request of local police. The official said the planes were using infrared cameras “to monitor movements of people in the vicinity.” Government officials denied using cell site simulators, or DRT boxes to monitor cell phone communications.
Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says the authorities might not have been monitoring communications but rather, legitimately looking for dangerous situations. Still, he cautions, “We as a society are going to need to grapple with what kinds of rules are needed for such devices. We need to strike the right balance between the needs of law enforcement and the need to protect the privacy of individuals and prevent our country from becoming a surveillance society. “
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