FBI Releases Secret Spy Plane Footage From Freddie Gray Protests

In response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI has released more than 18 hours of video from surveillance cameras installed on FBI aircraft that flew over Baltimore in the days after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. The videos, which were released to the ACLU before being posted online by the FBI this week, offer a rare and comprehensive view of the workings of a government surveillance operation. While the release of the footage addresses some questions, it leaves others unanswered.

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Last year, the ACLU obtained records from the FBI showing that the agency had flown at least 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 through May 3, 2015, when the streets of the city were filled with people protesting and mourning Freddie Gray’s death just days before.

Records from the Federal Aviation Administration showed that the FBI’s aircraft, which were registered to front companies to conceal their ownership, carried sophisticated camera systems on board, complete with night-vision capabilities. FBI evidence logs showed that the agency had retained copies of surveillance videos and perhaps other electronic surveillance information from the flights, but the agency initially declined to release the actual videos. To its credit, the FBI reconsidered, and the footage is now a part of the public record.

We have been able to review most of the footage. Here are some of the most significant questions and observations we have after viewing it.

1. What was the FBI watching and why?

Baltimore Drone Footage

The FBI’s cameras captured hours of protests, from major marches and rallies on city thoroughfares and public squares, to smaller gatherings on sidewalks and in neighborhood intersections. At times, the cameras followed individual people walking or cars driving through the city. There are undoubtedly situations where aerial surveillance by law enforcement is appropriate, but there should be protections against mass surveillance of people engaged in First Amendment-protected protests and gatherings. At a time when the Movement for Black Lives is urgently mobilizing across the country, community members and activists shouldn’t have to worry that the government eyes in the sky will be capturing images of everything they do during a protest.

2.  Oh, government, what big eyes you have!

Baltimore Drone Footage - night

The FBI’s planes weren’t flying low; when zoomed out, their cameras captured large swaths of the city at once. But the cameras’ magnification capability is strong, and they frequently focused on a single intersection, followed a single car, or tracked the movements of small groups of people on the streets. Because the planes were so high in the sky, they probably escaped the notice of most people on the ground. But the cameras on board could quickly pan from one spot to another, even toggling between street corners in different neighborhoods. The cameras could also switch instantly to infrared mode, allowing high-resolution nighttime recording. The infrared video does not appear to have captured information about people inside of buildings, but it did clearly capture people and cars moving around in public spaces.

3. What happens to the footage?

Drone Footage Baltimore - Intersection

The FBI has retained (and now released) what it says is the “Complete collection of aerial surveillance footage of Baltimore protests from April 29, 2015 to May 3, 2015.” What are the retention rules for these videos? And are there limits on FBI agents revisiting them in the future, as part of specific investigations or just at their whim? The videos show people engaged in First Amendment-protected activities, people entering and exiting homes and other buildings, images of private back yards and roof decks, and other similar scenes and spaces. The videos sometimes track individual drivers as they traverse city streets.

This footage can reveal a great deal of potentially sensitive information. Moreover, these videos are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation tracked more than four months of FBI and Department of Homeland Security surveillance flights, identifying nearly 2,000 flights by FBI aircraft alone. The camera footage from those flights adds up fast, and could create a detailed catalogue of people’s activities in cities across the country. This quantity of surveillance requires strong controls.

4. Whose drones are those?

Baltimore Drone Footage - targeting

The FBI videos come from traditional aircraft, with pilots and other law enforcement personnel on board. But, incredibly, on numerous occasions, the videos capture small drones flying over the streets of Baltimore. At one point, the frame zooms out to reveal what appear to be three drones simultaneously flying over one Baltimore neighborhood. Most of the drones are captured on infrared camera feeds, obscuring some of their details, but they appear to be a mix of quad-rotor and helicopter-style devices. Because drones generally fly relatively close to the ground, the potential for privacy violations can be even greater than with video captured from traditional aircraft.

Who was flying these drones? Baltimore Police? Curious city residents? Journalists? What were they looking for? And were the flights legal? FAA rules require drones to remain within the line of sight of the operator, and to fly at relatively low altitude. 

5. What comes next?

Baltimore Drone Footage Protest targeting

The FBI’s videos show a lot, but the magnification isn’t enough to identify individual faces. Existing and developing technologies raise concerns about even greater invasions of privacy. An aircraft-mounted surveillance camera with higher magnification or greater resolution, coupled with facial recognition technology, would give the government the power to easily identify and follow any protester or pedestrian. More sensitive infrared and thermal sensing technology can see through the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and other private spaces. Electronic surveillance devices like Stingrays can vacuum up data about many people’s cell phones at once (and have already been used aboard surveillance planes). Automated license plate readers, through-the-wall radar arrays, and other gear give additional cause for concern.

Strong controls should be placed on these surveillance flights now, to ensure that developments in technology don’t outpace the protections that are in place. We must be wary of encroaching surveillance that can chill protesters from exercising their First Amendment rights and violate the privacy of innocent people on the ground.

[Note: Although these videos are within the scope of our FOIA request, we did not specifically ask for them and were surprised to receive them. Upon receipt, our plan had been to review the videos, and to make public the portions of them in which the public interest in disclosure outweighed any privacy concerns. Before we could do so, however, the FBI posted all of the footage online.]

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Jake

1984 don't have nothing on 2016. Orweil couldn't have wrote a book that can even compare to 2016

Anonymous

They can take a video of me any time. Maybe I'm cutting grass, taking the trash out or cleaning up trash. Doesn't matter. I know I'm not breaking the law. Burning down local businesses, throwing rocks and bottles at cops. Not destroying cars, looting stores stealing prescription drugs from the very stores that help out the local community. So go ahead and keep those cameras on to take down the very people who destroy their own neighbor hoods and that we have to pay to rebuild, in tax money, had to come from somewhere, and lock them up and throw away the key. Hoodlums

Mr. Ford

All I can ask you is: If laws are unfair to certain groups of people are they valid? If you don't question the status quo we end up with a fascist state. Anger among "Hoodlums"<---- insert Black here, stems from being treated unfairly. So if you want your streets safe work for social justice. Guns, clubs, cops, none of these things solves the issues of why these folks rioted. People like you can and do actually get caught up in unfair police actions. When they break down the wrong door and terrorize your family in the "safety' of your own home. When you experience the unfair practices of our government and it's agencies then you will be able to comment on such issues. Until then you are completely ignorant to the institutional racism in this country. Social justice is the only path to safety. If we do not solve the deep seated issues of race relations in this country we will not see "safety".

Anonymous

None of those are federal crimes.

Mr Green

To Mr. Ford. It doesn't matter how much we work toward social justice. There are those in all cultures and races who will not follow the rules of society. Tell me where in this world the laws favor theft, arson and murder?

Anonymous

"I know I'm not breaking the law" youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc

Anonymous

You are so dumb

Anonymous

The FBI probably spends more time investigating and punishing LEGAL First Amendment exercises than it does investigating legitimate probable cause of past crimes.

Look up "CoinTelPro" on wikipedia.org where it tells about female FBI agents masquerading as mistresses calling up the wife of a Baptist minister with the intent of breaking up their marriage. The so-called "crime" was that the minister was peacefully and legally supporting voting rights for African-Americans. The Baptist minister today has a mega-monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC next to Lincloln, Jefferson and FDR - the FBI was trying to destroy Martin Luther King, Jr. for his non-crimes and non-wrongdoing. Today they are investigating "Black Lives Matter" protesters without legitimate probable cause of a past crime as the Fourth Amendment requires before snooping.

The reality is that anyone empowered to snoop into a citizen's life in the first place will abuse anyone they dislike 100% of the time - not based on any actual crime or wrongdoing. Today we have local police agencies trolling Facebook and social media punishing police critics (not criminals). The letter & spirit of the Fourth Amendment prohibits that type of unconstitutional snooping. FBI agents and police take a supreme loyalty oath to operate within the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Not everything is their business, only where legitimate probable cause of a past crime exists. When they snoop on legal First Amendment exercises, FBI agents themselves are violating federal "color of law" statutes - the only real crime happening in that scenario.

Anonymous

So they beat you to the punch? A non story. Of the public can video the cops during an protest why can the opposite be done.?

Anonymous

Right, if you aren't doing anything wrong why care if someone is watching? People record without permission all the time. Anyone out there was recorded regardless of color.

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