Alleged Government Surveillance In Baltimore Has Citizens Questioning The Secrecy Behind It

Benjamin Shayne told The Washington Post that he was sitting in his backyard Saturday night, when he first saw a plane making small loops over the part of Baltimore where rioting took place a few days earlier as a response to the death of Freddie Gray. Shayne tweeted his confusion and received a reply from fellow Baltimore citizen Pete Cimbolic, who linked the Federal Aviation Administration's website, which said the plane was registered to NG Research, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation later confirmed to the Post it had provided aircraft to the Baltimore Police Department, though it wouldn't comment on the exact flights. The American Civil Liberties Union has since accused the government of carrying out secret surveillance over Baltimore, according to the Post, "during a period of historic political protest and unrest." The FBI did not immediately respond to Bustle's request for comment.

For three consecutive nights last weekend, the Post said a small plane flew a tight loop around west Baltimore, where riots erupted. The second, larger plane allegedly flew a higher, bigger loop closer to the perimeter of the city, with west Baltimore as its epicenter. A spokesperson for the FBI emailed a statement to Ars Technica saying the flights were being used to catch curfew breakers during the height of protests. Update: A spokesperson for the FBI has since emailed the following statement to Bustle:

The safety and welfare of our communities is the highest priority for the FBI and our law enforcement partners. During the recent unrest, the FBI provided aircraft to the Baltimore Police Department for the purpose of providing aerial imagery of possible criminal activity. The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground. The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected first amendment activity, and any FBI aviation support to a local law enforcement agency must receive high level approvals.

Planes that have the latest surveillance technology can allegedly monitor larger areas than police helicopters and can take images of dozens of city blocks, which means they could be surveying people who aren't suspected of criminal activity, according to the Post. The two small planes apparently have sensors that have been used to gather intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Ars, and they are also equipped with high-definition systems that can conduct surveillance during both the day and night. If these two planes are indeed sponsored by the FBI, as reports indicate, the Ars Technica article specifies that the exact number, basing location, and types of aircraft operated by the FBI's Surveillance and Aviation Branch are classified.

The ACLU has since filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for more details about the flights, according to ABC2 News.

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, and a number of privacy advocates said they were less concerned about the fact that the planes were trying to catch illegal activity (such as the burning of a CVS in Baltimore), but were more concerned with the fact that some Baltimore residents who were carrying out perfectly legal activities were allegedly under surveillance without their knowledge. According to Friedersdorf, an effort to catch looters on video or to impose a curfew on a particular street is transparent (and, though Friedersdorf didn't point this out, it's a specific goal). In that case, he wrote, the public knows exactly what's going on and can debate the merits of that surveillance and critique officials who enacted it if they felt the surveillance was overreaching:

None of that can happen with regard to these flights. They are operated as if by secret police. The public has no way of evaluating the mission's content, propriety, or success. How can the people decide if they want to be governed in this way if they're not even told the substance of policies carried out in their name? And Baltimore's police department is low on the list of government entities that one would trust to avoid abuses while operating under cover of secrecy.

Further, Friedersdorf and privacy advocates wondered why these flights were kept a secret if they were simply monitoring looters or people breaking curfew. "Wouldn't order be enhanced by announcing to everyone in Baltimore that the authorities are watching closely from the sky?," Friedersdorf asked in his article. And the ACLU has similar qualms. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU specializing in privacy and technology issues, told the Post that the fact surveillance was allegedly enacted wasn't the real problem — it's the breadth and scope of that surveillance that compound and make the alleged secrecy a civil liberties issue:

A lot of these technologies sweep very, very broadly, and, at a minimum, the public should have a right to know what’s going on.