Privacy SOS

FBI admits it helped Baltimore police with aerial surveillance

The Baltimore Sun is reporting that the FBI has acknowledged it provided spy planes to the BPD to monitor people on the ground in the wake of protests and rebellion after the police killed unarmed black man Freddie Gray.

“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,” FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson told the Sun. “The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity.”

Whether or not the FBI was "there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity," the spy planes most likely did. The ACLU has filed FOIA requests hoping to find out more about what exactly those planes were doing in the skies above Baltimore. It's possible that officials used the planes to fly stingray cellphone surveillance equipment and infrared cameras over protests. Baltimore police have used stingrays to track cellphones thousands of times over the past decade.

According to a heavily redacted 2012 audit of the FBI's aerial surveillance programs, the Bureau has invested millions of dollars in purchasing a fleet of cessna surveillance planes. In 2009 alone, the FBI spent $9 million on the planes and surveillance technologies to outfit them. The report says the FBI primarily uses the planes for counterterrorism operations.

When deciding how to prioritize the use of its limited aviation resources, FBI field divisions considered the FBI’s national priorities and the most significant threats in an office’s geographic jurisdiction, along with the safety of the operation and other mission-related factors. The FBI’s overall data on field division aviation activity indicates that aviation resources supported the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, which is its number one priority…

Protest and rioting do not constitute terrorism, but that hasn't stopped law enforcement officials at every level from conflating Black Lives Matter protesters with terrorists.

The Mayor of Baltimore has said police will comb through video evidence looking for more people to arrest. Will they use images from the FBI's persistent aerial surveillance operations?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.