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Sunday, April 14, 2024

We Need to Know Who's Surveilling Protests—and Why

Prepaid phones, encrypted messaging apps, unidentifiable long-sleeved clothing, and face masks. This anti-detection starter pack came recommended for those looking to shield themselves from government surveillance while protesting in support of Black Lives Matter. In the future, the Federal Aviation Agency might be a resource added to the list.

The gamut of surveillance tools used during protests runs wide. It's unlikely that your Twitter account was hacked, much like Donald Trump's was thought to be last month, to determine your location while protesting. But it may have been analyzed with a social media scanning tool. Even worse, an unmanned aircraft system, aka drone, was used in Minneapolis on May 29. As the general election is now upon us and the threat of post-election unrest grows, it is reasonable to assume more drones will be used for surveillance.


Recent analyses by our Propaganda Research team at the University of Texas' Center for Media Engagement calls into question the legality and intent of domestic US drone usage. Transparency on all drone flights conducted in US airspace is necessary for research, governmental accountability, public safety, and, of course, future protests. In fact, the FAA may hold the key that unlocks information about drones used to surveil domestic protests.

Drones allow photographers and videographers to capture breathtaking snapshots with relative ease. They help natural disaster response teams to survey wreckage. Firms like Uber and Amazon even use them to deliver goods and services. They’re also used as tools of war and vehicles for mass surveillance. The anti-surveillance (sousveillance) community and even US congressmembers have spoken out against this legally dubious use of drones to monitor protests that erupted nationwide following the murder of George Floyd.

According to an official statement, the US Customs and Border Patrol drone that flew over Minneapolis provided “live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.” In short, drones were used in what is suspected as a "preemptive" attempt to watch for violations of the law. But was CBP itself breaking the law by using a drone to watch US citizens?

The answer seems clear, given that CBP’s jurisdiction is restricted to operating within 100 miles of US borders. Minneapolis is a good 300-mile drive from Canada. Additionally, in 2015 the Department of Homeland Security published recommendations against monitoring constitutionally protected activities “such as the First Amendment’s protections of religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress of grievances (e.g., protests, demonstrations).”

Despite demands for answers, limited information is known about the flight over Minneapolis. The drone is thought to have been an MQ-9 Reaper (“Predator B”). Its flight path was first reported by an investigative journalist on Twitter and later confirmed by Motherboard. Drones were also reported to have flown over protests elsewhere, some supposedly operated by private individuals. All told, demonstrations occurred in at least 1,700 locations across all 50 states, though this is likely an undercount as protests continue in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor and other police-violence-related circumstances.

Questions loom: Is use of these drones legal? How will data—data about US citizens—be used by organizations like CBP? How long will this data be retained? Is the data sold or permanently deleted? How is the government working to mitigate illegal use of drones during protests by private individuals? These will remain until researchers and journalists are given better access to information about how drones continue to be used surrounding US protests. Not all hope is lost, though: The FAA might just have answers.

Remote ID Would Benefit the Public

In December 2019, the FAA published a notice for proposed rulemaking that would require drones to have Remote ID technology. This would give the agency the capability to gather in-flight location and identification information. The FAA argues this policy will help address “safety, national security, and law enforcement concerns regarding the further integration of these aircraft into the airspace of the United States.”

Without oversight, drones can be used by a range of state and non-state actors to collect information on bystanders and those otherwise not connected to an impending investigation. Our research team agrees with this assessment, but it should be pushed further—how might the data gathered ultimately be used for propaganda or punitive measures? If the operator of a drone knows you attended a BLM protest, will that data be sold to commercial enterprises? Will it be handed over to political campaigns hoping to individually advertise to particular types of voters? Could the information be given to your employer? Will it be admissible evidence in a court of law?

Per the new policy, in order for a drone to be operated it will need to have Remote ID, which acts as a digital license plate. The technology will be developed by a cohort of eight companies, which communicates information to other nearby users and UAS Service Suppliers, who will then share the data with the FAA. That information includes the identity of the drone via serial number or flight session ID, control station latitude and longitude, control station barometric pressure altitude, a time mark, emergency status (which would prove helpful if a drone loses connections or crashes), drone latitude and longitude, the unmanned aircraft’s barometric pressure altitude. The data will be recorded and made publicly accessible by the agency.

To be clear, this data will not answer the most burning questions about drone surveillance operations, but it will provide important, streamlined information that can be used for investigations. Any exception to this rule, and there are some, will stymie the flow of information when it is most needed.

There’s More at Stake

Drones operated within US airspace must comply with Remote ID regulations whether operated for recreational or commercial purposes, but there are some exceptions for those: weighing less than 0.55 pounds; built for special research purposes; owned by the military; or otherwise owned by the federal government “but only if granted special permission from the FAA,” for which a request must be made. State, county, or local governments cannot apply for special permission, but the FAA should amend the policy so the federal government cannot either.

A loophole provided to the federal government can be used to evade transparency, which undermines the reason Remote ID was proposed in the first place: to hold all operators accountable. Even if this rule was implemented before this summer's protests, special permission granted to requesting agencies could have been used to mask critical information needed by researchers, journalists, activists, and the public. This is unacceptable.

The official period for public comment on the FAA Remote ID policy closed in March 2020. It is difficult to gauge whether any significant amendments to the document will be made, but if the intent of the FAA is to increase accountability of all drones operated in US airspace, it will close the loophole that exempts federally-owned drones from being equipped with Remote ID technology.

This policy is about much more than simple technological advancement or new drone regulations. Remote ID will provide basic flight information in a way that can be reasonably obtained; and during this pivotal moment in national history, the FAA should consider itself a gatekeeper to holding individuals and institutions—both public and private—accountable in future protests. Without information on who is watching them and how, Americans cannot be sure of their democratic rights.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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