Has the Aerial Surveillance of America now become a Thing?

By Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director and Joe Cadillic, MassPrivatel Blog

Even before the recent protests against police brutality, local police and other governmental agencies were using airplanes to surveil streets.

In the summer of 2016, the city of Baltimore secretly used airplanes to surveil its citizens. Let me restate that, the city actually didn’t do it but a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems flew a Cessna high above, collecting and storing footage for the city.

On May 1st, the next phase of the experiment has begun. Of course, civil liberties groups oppose this six month crime fighting trial. Now, three planes will crisscross the city simultaneously during the hours when the city experiences its highest rate of crime, gathering footage and information. A city spokesperson said that the planes will likely cover 90 percent of the city each day.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison had previously been skeptical of this “untested” crime fighting tool. In a recent press conference, however, he said this, “We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime.” He added that he now believed that using surveillance planes could prove to be “yet another tool” for fighting violence that plagues Baltimore.

Apparently, it will not be live footage for police use. Instead, police will receive “evidence packages” of specific reported crimes such as homicides, shootings, robberies and carjackings. Police misconduct will not be part of the surveillance program.

Shelia: So, Joe, do you think residents will feel safer due to the planes or feel like the eye in the sky is a big brother that is spying on them whether they have done anything wrong?

Joe: The technology at law enforcement’s disposal, things like facial recognition, crime prediction software have been shown to be racially bias. So, I do not see how any minorities caught under Big Brother’s gaze will feel safer. And it’s not just minorities who should be concerned with police surveillance when a city justifies monitoring 90% of its population one has to ask, have we become China?

Baltimore’s police plane surveillance program is one thing, but as we have seen happen across the country once police acquire planes, helicopters and drones they use them in ways that they promised the public they would never do.

Shelia: Thirty-five members of Congress recently signed a letter to the heads of the Custom and Borders Patrol (CBP), the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the National Guard to demand answers about the use of aerial surveillance during recent protests. According to operation summaries of flights between May 29 through June 16, the CBP flew two different surveillance aircrafts (an AS350 helicopter and C206 airplane) over Detroit for a total of nearly 78 hours. This was the longest surveillance of any city out of the 15 listed on the summaries. A total of 270 hours were flown during the same time period.

The helicopter was equipped with thermal/infrared cameras, video recording and downlink abilities. The airplane was used to conduct surveillance, tracking, and reconnaissance. The CBP apparently liked the use of planes more since they provide better range, endurance and blend more effectively with local air traffic to mask surveillance than the helicopter. CBP officials claim that the air surveillance had no data gathering capability; only real time information for police and National Guard on the ground.

The CBP also says a predator drone (the kind used to surveil terrorist targets in other countries) was also used for two hours in Minneapolis in the early part of the protests.

So, Joe, with an increase in air surveillance during the protests, how will this affect overall street surveillance in the future?

Joe: The Pentagon’s 1033 surplus program has turned federal and local law enforcement into mini-surveillance centers. As we have discussed in previous conversations, police departments have an arsenal of public surveillance devices at their fingertips. But using planes, helicopters and now drones gives police departments the ability to monitor the public 24//7.

With DHS’s help, police are now able to track and identify peaceful protesters across the country, and that is frightening.

Shelia: How can regular folks fight against air surveillance for protests and nonprotest programs?

Joe: As I mentioned in previous conversations, purchasing a burner phone and turning off the Bluetooth setting and using “airplane mode” are good ways to avoid police surveillance and document police brutality.

Backing up all your videos and pictures on a secure server is also a good idea.

Protesters can also use umbrellas to avoid facial recognition and tear gas being fired at them.

It is a good idea to cover up any tattoos or unique physical characteristics and do not wear flashy clothing, which can be used to identify you later. Wearing a hat that covers your forehead and polarized sunglasses will also help deter police facial recognition.

Shelia: Joe, we will continue the discussion on street surveillance in the next edition of the NMA Street Surveillance Blog!


In other news the past two weeks:

HBO’s program Last Week Tonight with John Oliver focused a show on Facial Recognition recently.

Here are 10 other Street Surveillance that might be of interest:

Joe also has posted the following surveillance pieces recently at his MassPrivatel Blog.

If you would like to keep track of the many issues currently involved in street surveillance, check out Joe’s blog called MassPrivatel. Also, take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily, a five times per week email.

Thank you for reading the NMA’s Street Surveillance Watch Blog, and please consider joining the National Motorists Association today!

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