Four federal agencies should cease surveilling this year’s widespread protests of systemic racism, a group of 35 Democratic House members say in a letter sent Tuesday.
As millions of people have taken to the streets in hundreds of communities the last 10 days, reports have said the National Guard, FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration have conducted surveillance and shared intelligence about the protests, which came in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
The letter cites news stories about the Guard, FBI and CBP flying manned and unmanned aircraft equipped with infrared and electro-optical cameras, as well as “dirtboxes” for collecting cellphone location data over protests. Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Detroit have seen such aircraft. The letter also refers to a report that said DEA received special permission from the Justice Department to covertly surveil and share intelligence on the protests — outside the agency’s normal mandate.
“Government surveillance has a chilling effect,” reads the letter. “Downloads for encrypted messaging apps have spiked during recent demonstrations, showing a broad concern of surveillance among protesters.”
Reps. Anna Eshoo of California and Bobby Rush of Illinois spearheaded the letter, after the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the surveillance of protestors Saturday. Committee leadership separately sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security concerning CBP’s role in surveillance. Eshoo and Rush sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has technology policy under its jurisdiction.
CBP confirmed reports of a Predator B drone over the Minneapolis protest on May 29, well outside its jurisdiction of no more than 100 air miles inland from any border. The agency’s involvement was “particularly alarming” given the committee is also investigating racist, sexist and xenophobic comments made in secret CBP Facebook groups by employees potentially deployed to silence protestors, leaders said.
“We write with grave concern about the use of [DHS] resources—including drones and armed uniformed officers—to surveil and intimidate peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department,” reads the letter.
House Oversight requested all communication tied to DHS activities — including everywhere it policed protests, the costs and legal authorities invoked — by June 11, 2020 and a staff briefing by June 15, 2020. The committee also wants to know who requested DHS’s involvement in each instance, what data was collected, whether it was shared, and plans for retention and future use.
Oversight’s request of DHS singles out facial recognition software and hardware used and asks whether the algorithm employed was evaluated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
IBM letter to Congress
IBM CEO Arvind Krishna wrote his own letter to Congress on Monday, stating the tech company will no longer offer general purpose facial recognition or analysis software to law enforcement, or even research the technology.
“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” Krishna wrote. “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”