In the aftermath of the Baltimore protests and riots in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, FBI surveillance planes were flown over the city on the evenings of April 30, May 1, and May 2, according to the Washington Post.
An unnamed government official who spoke to the paper stated that these planes—a Cessna 182T Skylane propeller plane and a Cessna 560 Citation V jet—used infrared technology to monitor people’s movements, and that Baltimore police officials requested aerial support from the FBI.
“It would be disturbing if police were overreacting to reactions to their own misconduct by calling in indiscriminate aerial surveillance,” Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told me. He points out that the days in question occurred after the rioting had ended but while a curfew, criticized by the ACLU in Maryland, was still in place.
The Baltimore police department’s poor track record includes not only legally questionable surveillance but also the use of excessive force and of abusive and racially discriminatory practices such as stop-and-frisk. The timing of the flights raises questions about whether law enforcement was conducting electronic surveillance of lawful protesters or even just people who happened to be living or walking around in the vicinity.
Perhaps even disturbing is the fact that the spy planes were exposed by Twitter user Benjamin Shayne when he noticed a plane suspiciously circling the sky. (Similar planes have been spotted in the past and discussed on Reddit.) “Whatever law enforcement is doing, it should not be doing it in secret,” says Wessler. “If they have been flying surveillance planes over major metropolitan areas during times of protest, the public should know about that, and we should be able to have an open debate about what the limits are on that surveillance, what is done with the information collected, and what justification the government asserted to do it in the first place.”
It’s not yet entirely clear what capabilities these planes have and what type of surveillance was conducted, which is why the ACLU has filed FOIA requests with various government agencies.
One possibility is that the planes had IMSI catchers, also known as stingrays, which could scoop up the electronic serial numbers of mobile devices in an entire area. Subpoenaing phone companies for subscriber names for each of the devices linked with these numbers could result in a list of anybody at a protest or even in a particular neighborhood at a particular time.
The Washington Post also suggests the planes could carry infrared technology, which would capture the movement of people on the streets and potentially even inside their homes. The use of a thermal imaging device without a warrant was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a case where law enforcement was using the technology to look for heat lamps for a marijuana grow operation inside someone’s home.
It’s possible, though less likely, that the planes were simply taking video footage. But even video footage could allow be quite invasive.
“There are technologies that private companies have developed and that the government is using that provide incredibly high-definition photography and video of wide areas from airplanes by stitching together a whole array of mega- or gigapixel cameras,” says Wessler. Persistent wide-angle shots of whole neighborhoods and even whole cities lets them look at where individual cars were driving or people were walking over the course of time. Even if this type of intense surveillance is intended to be targeted, the technology will inevitably sweep up lots of innocent people as well.
Law enforcement may have unprecedented levels of surveillance technology with scarily limited transparency and oversight, and defending people’s First and Fourth amendment rights—or even getting information on the extent of what is happening—is an uphill battle. But it’s worth noting that even in our age of asymmetric information warfare, it cuts both ways. Media drones as well as footage captured on mobile devices are bringing exposure to police misconduct issues that may have previously been swept under the rug.