A large fire burned in Minneapolis on May 28 in the wake of the killing of George
Floyd while in police custody.
A Predator B drone at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico last year.
Does high-tech surveillance interfere with the right to free speech?
Betsy Combier, firstname.lastname@example.org
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“Americans have a healthy fear of government surveillance that started at the founding of our country and has continued to modern times,” said the letter signed by lawmakers including Reps. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D., Ill.).
While the congressional scrutiny so far is coming from Democrats, some conservatives are troubled as well. “It’s disturbing to see tools built to gather military intelligence being used to watch U.S. citizens,” said Billy Easley II, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization.
“Drones should not be used by the government to monitor or collect data on First Amendment activity,” he said. ”They should only be used when there is a threat to life or property, and the federal government should be transparent about the circumstances of their use.”
CBP confirmed that the agency flew a Predator over Minneapolis, but disputed the claim in the congressional letter that drones were flown over Detroit and San Antonio. The Minneapolis drone flight was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan research group.
CBP also used helicopters and planes to monitor protests, an agency spokesman said. He said the video captured is shared with local law enforcement to determine the size and movements of protests, and no attempt is made to identify individual protesters.
A second CBP official said the images provide “situational awareness.” He added: “If you’re law enforcement…it’d be helpful to know if it’s 20 people or 2,000 people.”
In their letter Tuesday, lawmakers also cited reports that other government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Air National Guard are involved in protest surveillance.
In a statement, the FBI said it respects the rights of Americans to peacefully protest, and said its efforts “are focused on identifying, investigating and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity.”
The Air National Guard didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Federal officials including Attorney General William Barr have said their efforts during the protests have been focused on apprehending and charging what he called “violent radical agitators.” Mr. Barr has said violence by extremist groups during the protests amounts to domestic terrorism.
The surveillance has alarmed those who worry that federal, state and local agencies could be deploying an array of sophisticated tactics and techniques—including high-zoom surveillance cameras, facial-recognition software, cellphone monitoring devices and social-media tracking techniques—to monitor civilians engaged in peaceful demonstrations.
“No government agency should be facilitating the over-policing of the black community, period,” said ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani in a statement. She added that the CBP’s “use of military technology to surveil protesters inside U.S. borders is deeply disturbing, especially given CBP’s lack of clear and strong policies to protect privacy and constitutional rights.”
While technology such as smartphones has helped document police violence, activists say it also can hamper protesters’ efforts to bring about change, by scaring some away.
The surveillance threatens to chill protesters’ First Amendment rights, said Saira Hussain, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights organization that has focused on high-tech surveillance.
“Why give law enforcement every single possible tool to use at its fingertips?” she said, adding: “I think this is a time of reckoning to figure out, do we want these tools to exist?”
Write to John D. McKinnon at email@example.com and Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com