FBI Documents Reveal New Information on Baltimore Surveillance Flights

Flight path over Baltimore -- screen capture from Flightradar24.com by Pete Cimbolic

The director of the FBI confirmed to Congress last week that the agency flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore during the protests following the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Today the ACLU is releasing FBI and FAA documents with new details about the Baltimore surveillance flights.

The new internal documents, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, reveal that the government was doing more than just monitoring the situation with regular cameras. The FBI was using advanced technology like infrared and night-vision cameras, and it is holding on to surveillance video it recorded from the sky.

As we explained when we first brought the Baltimore flights to light, FBI aircraft circling over West Baltimore during a period of intense protest and upheaval raises a number of significant questions, like what kind of surveillance equipment were they using, what data were they gathering and saving, with whom that information is being shared, and whether aerial surveillance has the effect of chilling First Amendment–protected speech and assembly. It also raises concerns about whether the intelligence gathered could lead to racial profiling of the protesters, who were predominantly people of color. These questions are all the more pressing now that we’ve learned the FBI flies a fleet of secret surveillance planes over cities across the country. The new records provide partial answers to some of these questions.

The documents show multiple flights during which the FBI conducted video surveillance and unspecified “other electronic surveillance.” According to its flight logs, the FBI flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 through May 3, comprising a total of 36.2 flight hours. Most of the flights took place at night, and half of them carried a Baltimore Police Department representative in addition to FBI personnel.

FBI evidence logs reveal that at least half of the flights conducted video surveillance, and that the FBI retained copies of those videos in its files. Other flights conducted some type of “electronic surveillance,” but specific descriptions are redacted. This suggests that those flights were perhaps using more sensitive or powerful recording gear than just video cameras, though what kind we don’t know.

What we do know is that one of the aircraft, a Cessna propeller plane registered to an FBI front company, NG Research, had specialized surveillance camera equipment on board. FAA documentation shows that the FBI installed a Paravion Technology infrared camera mount and a FLIR Talon multi-sensor camera system on the exterior of the plane. The FLIR system includes a “thermal imager,” an optical camera, and a “laser illuminator” for recording at night. We did not receive documentation about the second plane observed circling over Baltimore, so we don’t know if it was carrying different gear.

In its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the FBI takes the position that no Fourth Amendment protections apply to “aerial surveillance conducted from navigable airspace.” While that is an accurate statement of Supreme Court precedent when it comes to visual observation and use of normal cameras from a plane, it fails to grapple with the effect of advances in surveillance technology. Use of infrared and night-vision camera technology changes the equation by raising the potential for invasions of privacy. The capabilities of the surveillance gear matter. If the infrared camera is capable of observing information about the inside of private homes and offices, for example, the Supreme Court has already explained that the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies.

In an internal memo, the FBI justified the Baltimore surveillance flights in light of reports that “large scale demonstrations and protests” were being scheduled, and the “potential for large scale violence and riots.” (Oddly, some of the FBI documents describe the surveillance flights as “consensual monitoring,” though they fail to describe who consented — certainly not the protesters on the ground.)

There undoubtedly are times when aerial surveillance is an appropriate law enforcement tool for public safety or investigative purposes. But it is essential that accurate information about such surveillance be available to the public, and that strict rules be in place to protect against unjustified mass surveillance or warrantless collection of private information. As the government’s technological capabilities improve, we must ensure that old legal rules from the pre-digital era are not blindly applied to newer and more powerful forms of digital surveillance.

The documents:

FBI

FBI response letter
Memo justifying Baltimore surveillance flights and evidence logs
Flight logs
Excerpt from Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide
Bureau Aviation Regulations Policy Directive and Policy Guide

FAA
FAA Aircraft Registration Branch response letter
Registration documentation for plane N539MY
Airworthiness documentation for plane N539MY
FAA Systems Operations Services response letter

 

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Anonymous

No wonder people hate the police and law enforcement. This is very Nazi-like behavior.

Anonymous

are you dumb black or both

Anonymous

Agreed. Whoever replied to this equating African-Americans to "dumb (sic)" people is a xenophobic and racist hate-mongerer.

Anonymous

Florida v Riley, "with the un aided eye"
FAA litigation support member Carol Might " we don't know the N number" "We don't know the Mode "S" code transmitted by the aircraft" The FAA assigns all of these registrations to all US aircraft, and receive this metadata in package form every time the plane keys it's mic on a radar screen at TRACON in every control tower. Again, Carol Might, "there is no warrant required to fly in US airspace", to fly, correct, to conduct surveillance, WRONG, especially to spend prolonged amounts of time over specific targets, using what the ACLU obtained through FOIA, records of advanced technology used, beyond the "naked eye" is just the same as the Oregon case in which the cops using infared peered into a mans house without warrant!

Anonymous

I do know that in the sate of Minnesota this type of infrared camera use can not be done ( legally ) without a search warrant. There were several cases some years ago that involved the use of infrared or thermal imaging to look for heat sources from marijuana growing operations. MN Supreme Court ruled that this amounted to a search of the home and required a search warrant.

Anonymous

They were riots. Watch them closely for sure.

101st Airborne

" A riot is the language of the unheard"
Martin Luther King

I would be curious to know how many flights occurred at the shootout with the Biker shootout, where 9 were killed and 17 or 18 were wounded 100+ were arrested. "...got footage?"
Maye the riot in Ohio after a football game where property damage was in the 100k+ range with a number of assaults and rapes of females that were just watching. The same has happened after football, baseball et al.
'Doctor heal thyself'

Anonymous

What about violation of privacy by drone surveilence and wire tapping in citizens homes, space considered to be private but intruded upon, audio feedback and voice transmission, used to harass, terrorize and manipulate the public in one's home? What's being done I. The Supreme Court and what protections are in place to stop this unwarranted violation of the 4th Amendment, 1st Amendment and 5th Amendment?
Are we all subject to a police state without warrantable due cause?

Teame Zazzu

"..those flights were perhaps using more sensitive or powerful recording gear than just video cameras, though what kind we don’t know." YES, we do know.
Its called "Wide Area Persistent Stare" and its capable of tracking and recording everyone within a 25+ sq mile area. This tech has been proven to be used by police conducting warrantless mass surveillance over US cities including Compton, CA and Dayton Oh. WAPS is used for mass geolocation tracking and is a form of FMV used to fix drone targets for assassination.

Just search these terms for more information -

Persistent Surveillance
ARGUS
Wide Area Persistent Stare
Gorgon Stare
Vigilant Stare
Teame Zazzu

Robert Wm Ruedisueli

Why haven't these videos been used to prosecute police officers for their abuses during those protests.

I suspect they are very damning.

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