Privacy SOS

Report: DC police used advanced US Navy equipment to monitor IMF protest

Documents disclosed during a decade-old lawsuit filed by protesters swept up in mass arrests outside the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington DC in 2002 have revealed that the DC police “arranged to use U.S. Navy satellite communications and video equipment” to monitor demonstrators, reports WJLA news.

Details about the arrangement with the Naval Research Laboratory are emerging as part of a lawsuit by people arrested during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. Lawyers for the demonstrators and others swept up in the mass arrests cite the deal with the Navy, which caught a judge's attention when a police officer testified about it last fall, as an example of overzealous police preparation and response to constitutionally protected protest activity.

"The incorporation of military and other assets is indicative of the District's alarmist mentality leading up to these protests and ultimately the grossly unlawful conduct in the mass arrest itself," plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Turley wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Then-Police Chief Charles Ramsey has apologized as part of a settlement for the department's handling of the demonstrations, which ended with arrests of protesters who were corralled in a city park and in some cases hogtied. A handful of plaintiffs remain, and a federal judge is investigating potential evidence tampering in the case, including allegations that someone tried to delete an electronic log of police communications from the weekend of the protests.

The DC police department reportedly paid the Navy $30,000 for use of its technology, called the InfraLynx system. But DC isn’t alone in having used the Navy gear.

An undated University of Maine Department of Computer Science website states that the InfraLynx system was used there, as well, and that the vehicles would also be deployed nationwide at a number of sites:

The Tactical Technologies Development Lab (TTDL), part of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the Office of Naval Research, brought one of its InfraLynx Hummers to Maine in mid-October, along with a specially equipped SUV, and a transport vehicle… Eventually, these vehicles will be placed in 10 sites across the country to allow for rapid response if necessary. Thus far, three cities have InfraLynx on hand.

InfraLynx is a combination infrastructure restoration vehicle and mobile communications platform. It adds considerable depth to any form of incident management. Described as command and control on steroids, it consists of an interoperable communications module with the ability to tap satellite, wireless and cellular links. The InfraLynx payload can be retrofitted into existing mobile command posts.

That description makes the InfraLynx technology sound suspiciously similar to IMSI catchers – advanced surveillance devices police and FBI agents use to trick our cell phones into handing over our mobile information to them instead of to our cell phone providers.

A 2002 New York Times story on the InfraLynx makes me even more suspicious that the Navy technology includes cell phone sniffers [emphasis mine]:

With its 45-foot telescoping antenna, the InfraLynx can act as a cellphone tower, emulating commercial carriers or creating a private network for law enforcement officers.

Unlike the kind of temporary cellular tower — or cell-on-wheels — that most wireless carriers deployed on Sept. 11, the InfraLynx's cellular capability does not depend on tying into local land lines. Instead, it gathers consumer cell signals and beams them to a satellite, landing them in another city.

Does your local department use such a tool to monitor protests? Chances are, if it does, it isn't relying on the Navy anymore.

Back in 2002, the federal government hadn’t yet geared up its ‘terrorism’ related federalization and militarization of local police departments, a project taken on with gusto and billions of dollars by the Department of Homeland Security, formed in November of that year. But now, in 2013, it is likely that many police departments don't even need the Navy’s help to do this kind of advanced monitoring — of political demonstrations or anything else. Many departments now have their own advanced mobile command centers, thanks in large part to lavish DHS grants.

The militarization of the police continues apace. Let’s hope we don’t wait ten years before finding out how these fancy tools are directed at us today, and why.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.