Baltimore Police, with FBI help, conducted a secret multi-day campaign of overhead surveillance during the political protest and unrest over the death of Freddie Gray of injuries sustained in police custody, the Washington Post reports. Discovery of the flights by an aviation buff who is a former American Civil Liberties Union staff member prompted the ACLU to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than can police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have had little scrutiny from courts. Civil libertarians are concerned about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks, in some cases square miles at a time, inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet. The ACLU plans to file information requests with federal agencies.
“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,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU specializing in privacy and technology issues. The FBI declined to comment. A government official familiar with the operations said the flights were aerial support that Baltimore police officials requested from the FBI. The exact reach of the infrared technology is not clear. Civil libertarians have long warned that the ability to track the movements of individuals, even if their names are not initially known, can allow authorities to identify people, intruding on personal privacy and chilling the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association. “We have the right to demand to know what's happening,” said Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco. “Whether the government will respond to that, that's the question.”