23:11 GMT06 May 2021
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    Sputnik has already reported on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s use of ‘stingray’ cellphone surveillance devices attached to aircraft to monitor the George Floyd protests in Washington, DC. However, House of Representatives lawmakers say the surveillance operation is actually a multi-agency, multi-city campaign.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection service have been using aircraft equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment to track the ongoing George Floyd protests in cities across America, including Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and Detroit.

    That’s according to a letter by a group of 37 lawmakers to senior Washington officials including the heads of these agencies, as well as Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, and Acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf.

    “We write to you to express our deep and profound concerns that the surveillance tactics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Guard Bureau, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during the recent protests across the US are significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans,” the letter begins.

    “The First Amendment protects the right of Americans to assembly and protest government actions. Further, the Fourth Amendment protects ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons…against unreasonable searches and seizures’, a restriction that applies to the agencies you lead,” the appeal adds.

    House lawmakers stress that while law enforcement has the right to “limited actions” to reign in protesters if demonstrations turn violent, “this authority does not grant the agencies you lead to surveil American citizens or collect vast amounts of personal information.”

    As evidence, lawmakers point to a series of flights by spy aircraft and drones to monitor protests and, possibly, glean data from their cell phones for tracking purposes.

    This includes an FBI and National Guard flight of an RC-26B drug interdiction reconnaisance plane fitted with infrared and electro-optical cameras over Washington, DC and Las Vegas, an alleged FBI flight of a Cessna 560 Citation fitted with data collection equipment over the capital, as well as Customs and Border Protection flights of Predator drones collecting surveillance flights amid protests in San Antonio, Minneapolis and Detroit.

    Lawmakers also complain about the use of other technology, such as facial recognition, automated license plate readers, and devices known as ‘Stingrays’ which mimic cell towers to collect cellphone data, in the agencies’ protest tracking operations.

    The letter urges the mentioned agencies to “cease” the surveillance of peaceful protests “immediately and permanently,” stressing that “Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration.”

    According to media reports, drone surveillance flights over Minneapolis, where the unrest over the police killing of African American George Floyd first began, started as early as May 29, four days after his death.

    In a Justice Department memo dated May 30, Attorney General Barr granted broad powers to federal agencies to monitor protest activities to ensure “law and order on our streets and in our communities.”

    The US has faced over two weeks of mass protests, some of them violent, since the May 25 killing of 46-year-old African American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That incident, which took place in broad daylight and was caught on camera, sparked outrage after authorities initially refused to reprimand the officer, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lay face down on the asphalt for nearly 8 minutes until his death. Protests and demonstrations began in Minneapolis on May 26, and have since spread to cities across the country and around the world, with governors of dozens of states calling in the National Guard and beefing up law enforcement to deal with violence and looting. Two weeks on, over 11,000 people have been arrested, and 22 killed, mostly by gunshot wounds, with hundreds more injured.

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