from the yep-I'm-sure-they-were-just-waiting-to-be-told-'stop'-before-stoppin dept
Protests linked to the George Floyd killing are still occurring on a daily basis around the nation. With increased citizen activity comes increased police activity. Apparently, police departments can’t handle these protests on their own. In some states, the National Guard has been called in. In others, surveillance tech on loan from federal agencies is being deployed to keep an eyes on protesters.
The DEA apparently doesn’t have enough to do during this current civil unrest, so it has asked permission to spy on protests in hopes of catching someone committing federal crimes. No one asked the DEA to do this. It inserted itself into this situation and apparently couldn’t even find enough DEA agents to volunteer for its First Amendment incursions. A mixture of 25 volunteers and voluntolds are headed to major cities to keep an eye on stuff completely unrelated to the job of drug law enforcement.
Federal agencies have apparently decided the current situation demands an increase in domestic surveillance. A group of 35 federal legislators want to know why. A letter [PDF] sent to the FBI, DEA, National Guard, and CBP lets these agencies know their overseers aren’t exactly impressed with this opportunistic spying. The mini-coalition says the following behavior is unacceptable and possibly inexplicable:
While the job of law enforcement is to protect Americans, limited actions may be necessary if a demonstration turns violent. However, this authority does not grant the agencies you lead to surveil American citizens or collect vast amounts of personal information. Recent press reports indicate that:
• the FBI and National Guard flew RC-26B aircraft equipped with infrared and electro-optical cameras over Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas;
• the FBI may have flown Cessna 560 aircraft equipped with ‘dirtboxes,’ equipment that can collect cell phone location data, over Washington, D.C.;
• the CBP flew Predator drones that collected and disseminated live video feeds over Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Detroit; and
• the DEA was granted broad authority to “conduct covert surveillance” over protesters responding to the death of George Floyd.
That’s just the stuff that’s been documented by journalists. There’s likely other stuff happening too — stuff that no one’s aware of outside of the agencies performing the surveillance. This includes other tech tools agencies use frequently, like Stingray devices, facial recognition software, and license plate readers. All of this being deployed in the general direction of activities protected by the First Amendment isn’t the sort of behavior we want to see from agencies sworn to uphold the Constitution.
The letter notes citizens have responded to the government’s surveillance by taking steps to protect their communications and data, as is evidenced by the surge in encrypted messaging app downloads during recent days. The Congressional reps say this is the direct result of the government’s actions. It’s not acceptable for citizens to feel forced to protect themselves from their supposed protectors.
Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration. The fact that the agencies you lead have created an environment in which such headlines are common is, in and of itself, an indication of the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans. For these reasons, we demand you cease surveilling peaceful protests immediately and permanently.
We’ll see if these agencies are willing to listen to their overseers, since they’ve proven unwilling to listen to their employers. The full extent of domestic surveillance during the George Floyd protests likely won’t be revealed until months or years from now. Some will leak out during prosecution of suspected criminals rounded up during protests and riots. Other stuff will be FOIA’ed. A very small amount of information will be delivered by these agencies to members of Congress in public statements and letters. The rest will stay hidden. Whatever isn’t obscured by parallel construction will be hidden under black redaction bars citing handy FOIA exemptions. But it’s undeniable: law enforcement agencies are dying to engage in broad, warrantless surveillance. Flareups around the country are giving them the excuse they need to indulge their baser urges.