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03/07/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Usage of Surveillance Drones Over Black Lives Matter Protests in the USA

The murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, sparked Black Lives Matter protests all over the U.S. Five years after BLM protests were calling for justice after the murder of Freddie Gray, the U.S. government has resorted to drone surveillance as it did in 2015. However, the questions remain, what are they watching?, why are they watching? and what happens to protesters’ data in the footage?


On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, was asphyxiated to death by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By now, the four responsible police officers got fired and charged. The killing of George Floyd has led to thousands of demonstrations against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter across the globe. One of the cities where protests and riots are taking place is Minneapolis, where the murder happened. The United States of America reacted to the demonstrations in their way: with the usage of a surveillance drone.

On May 29, 2020, Vice reported that a surveillance drone circled for several hours over the demonstration in Minneapolis. Research from Buzzfeed revealed that not only in Minneapolis, but also in several other cities such as Washington, DC, New York City,  Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Miami, the Black Lives Matter protests were monitored. The monitoring not only happens with the usage of drones but also with helicopters and planes from the police and the military. Already in 2015, Black Lives Matter protests got surveilled after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old, got killed by the police in Baltimore on April 19. The following map shows the flight paths in the city of Minneapolis in May 2020:

blm surveillance

Source: Peter Aldhous, Buzzfeed 

Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter for ‘The Project on Government Oversight’ tweeted on May 29, 2020, he believes that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses a predator drone ‘CBP-104’. 

Face Recognition

The CBP-104 drone has been used for surveilling and killing terrorists outside of the United States of America. The CBP told the ABC that drone’s usage was not meant as surveillance, but as ‘providing assistance to state and locals so they could make sure that their cities and their towns were protected’. Additionally, the CBP Commissioner stated that they ‘weren’t taking any information on law-abiding protesters’. The problem hereby is that these aircraft are equipped with infrared sensors ‘which allow for crewmembers to maintain awareness of targets in all environments’. This means that they are indeed able to collect data from the protesters.

Is it even possible to prevent personal data from being collected, when surveillance cameras are everywhere and face recognition gets more and more popular? 

Digital Security

In a recent article, Vice listed some helpful steps to take around digital security when attending a protest. Two examples of that are to either bring a clean phone without any data on it or to bring no phone at all. You might also consider turning off the location services on your phone while participating in a demonstration. 

Wired stated that there are two main aspects when it comes to digital surveillance of protests. The first one is that police can obtain your data. This could either happen when you get arrested, but the police can also confiscate your phone and therefore collect your data. The second one is law enforcement surveillance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation listed some surveillance methods. An interesting example are cell-site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers. These simulators mask themselves as cell-phone towers in your area. If your phone connects to them, your data can then get collected. Other examples of surveillance methods are tracking tools, facial recognition, or even tattoo recognition.

The Problem With the Usage of Surveillance Drones

When it comes to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection surveilling demonstrations against police brutality, the actual questions are: what are they watching, why are they watching, and what happens to the footage? Especially during this time where the Black Lives Matter Movement gains more and more supporters, members and activists should not be worried about getting spied out by the government. 

The actual focus in this debate should lay on unjustified police brutality against unarmed black people. Instead, the predominantly peaceful protests are getting monitored.

 

Cover: Tobias Jussen

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