The FBI deployed two planes to fly over Baltimore at least 10 times during riots earlier this year, conducting video surveillance and unspecified “other electronic surveillance,” according to government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The planes were equipped with advanced aerial surveillance technology, including infrared and night-vision cameras. The law enforcement agency also held on to videos it captured of the protests during the flights.
Between the two planes, the agency flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 through May 3, adding up to more than 36 hours in the air, according to the documents.
The new details raise concerns among privacy advocates who warn the advanced surveillance technology is being quietly deployed without public debate, rely on shaky legal arguments that don’t account for new technological capabilities.
The ACLU warns that the use of surveillance technology could produce a chilling effect on Americans First Amendment rights to freedom of 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,” the ACLU said.
The planes used in the Baltimore flights, originally reported by The Washington Post, were hidden behind shell companies. Later, The Associated Press revealed the FBI was operating a small fleet of similar spy planes around the country, all using front companies.
The FBI argues that it must keep the surveillance flights a secret to protect the aircraft and its pilots, and avoid alerting the subjects of an ongoing investigation.
“Contrary to some recent media reporting, the FBI’s aviation program is not classified. Some of our aircraft are registered covertly because overt registration would put our aircraft and operations at risk of compromise,” the agency said in a statement in the wake of the AP report.
“The FBI routinely uses aviation assets in support of predicated investigations targeting specific individuals and, when requested and appropriate, in support of state and local law enforcement,” it said.
In congressional testimony last week, FBI Director James Comey did not elaborate in detail on how surveillance flights are conducted or approved.
But he acknowledged that planes were also used at the request of local authorities during protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer.
In a statement to Reuters, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said each Baltimore flight “produced infrared and day color, full-motion FLIR (forward-looking infrared) video evidence which is maintained in accordance with record retention policies.”
An FBI memo dated May 1 described the support provided at the request of the Baltimore authorities.
“The potential for large scale violence and riots throughout the week presents a significant challenge for the Baltimore Police Department for airborne surveillance and observation,” the memo noted in its justification of the flights.
One of the aircraft, a Cessna propeller plane, registered to an FBI front company, NG Research, was equipped with an infrared camera mount and a multi-sensor camera system, according to the documents from the Federal Aviation Administration.
An FBI official told The Washington Post that in the case of the Baltimore flights, the agency’s role was to monitor the general movements of the crowds in order to preserve public safety.
In an internal memo obtained by the ACLU, shared in advance with The Post, the agency cited the reports that “large scale demonstrations and protests” were being scheduled and the “potential for large scale violence and riots” as justification for the flights.
The documents shine a new light on the widespread and largely secretive use of aerial surveillance by the FBI. The issue has drawn the attention of lawmakers in recent months who have pushed the agency to be more forthcoming about the legal authority and technical scope of such flights.