FBI Admits to Using High-Tech Spy Planes to Monitor Freddie Gray Protests

Human Rights

Baltimore joins a growing list of cities where anti-police brutality protests have fallen under the purview of FBI’s surveillance apparatus. According to yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, federal authorities used their sophisticated fleet of spy aircraft to “watch over Baltimore in the wake of rioting”. FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson insisted the aircraft were used to help Baltimore Police “keep an eye out for criminal activity”:

"The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground," Thoreson said. "The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected first amendment activity."

The admission was in response to amatuer sleuths noticing unsual flight activity about the Baltimore area. As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday:

Discovery of the flights — which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI — has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have so far gotten little scrutiny from courts.

Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks — in some cases even square miles at a time — inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet. The ACLU plans to file information requests with federal agencies on Wednesday, officials said.

The airplane’s surveillance technology, as Arstechnica points out, was perfected overseas in US wars Iraq and Afghanistan. It comes equipped with high-defintion day and night surveillance systems as well as Stingray or “dirtybox” cell phone interception capacity - devices that can target mobile phones and listen to phone conversations in real-time.

While the FBI is insisting that the planes were only used after the “riots” began - and third party accounts seem to back this up - it should be noted the use of FBI monitoring systems on peaceful anti-police brutality protests is also very common. (Indeed, given the vast majority of protests even after the April 27th “State of Emergency” were peaceful this is still largely true in this instance.)

In a phone call this morning with AlterNet, Baltimore FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson insisted the spy plane’s stingray cell-intercepting devices were not used. When asked whether the FBI’s Joint Terror Task Force was employed on the Freddie Gray Protests, Ms. Thoreson said the Bureau had “no comment”.

As I noted recently, the FBI’s Joint Terror Task Forces, as well as DHS fusion centers and other “counter terror” apparatuses, have increasingly been used on peaceful Black Lives Matter protests - with reports of FBI and local authorties monitoring New York, Minnesota, and the Bay Area chapters. The tools of this monitoring range from fake twitter accounts, run-of-the-mill helicopters, undercover agents, the use of informants, and the gathering of information across agencies in co-called fusion centers.

So, were these spy planes limited to just “criminal activity”? Impossible to know for sure at this point - especially since they overlapped with what were largely peaceful protests - but this revelation is consistent with an emerging pattern that the surveillance systems built to fight our wars overseas and to prevent terrorism at home are more and more being used to snuff out domestic unrest, nonviolent or otherwise.

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