The government’s use of cutting-edge surveillance to monitor protests is coming under scrutiny by lawmakers and activists, including conservatives who see it as a threat to constitutional rights, the Wall Street Journal reports. The issue emerged after a Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection flew over protests in Minneapolis on May 29 after George Floyd’s killing. Drone flights have been reported over San Antonio and Detroit, according to a letter Tuesday from three dozen House members. The letter, which called for a halt to surveillance of peaceful protests, cited reports of surveillance flights by other agencies using conventional aircraft over Washington, D.C. “Americans have a healthy fear of government surveillance that started at the founding of our country and has continued to modern times,” said the letter signed by lawmakers including Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL).
“It’s disturbing to see tools built to gather military intelligence being used to watch U.S. citizens,” said Billy Easley II of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization. “Drones should not be used by the government to monitor or collect data on First Amendment activity. They should only be used when there is a threat to life or property, and the federal government should be transparent about the circumstances of their use.” A federal official said images from drones provide “situational awareness.” He added: “If you’re law enforcement…it’d be helpful to know if it’s 20 people or 2,000 people.” In their letter Tuesday, lawmakers cited reports that other agencies including the FBI and the Air National Guard are involved in protest surveillance. The surveillance alarmed those who worry that agencies could deploy an array of sophisticated tactics and techniques—including high-zoom surveillance cameras, facial-recognition software, cellphone monitoring devices and social-media tracking techniques—to monitor civilians in peaceful demonstrations.