In an unexpected move, the FBI has released more than 18 hours of surveillance video taken as its planes flew over Baltimore during the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
FBI spy planes flew over Baltimore from April 29 to May 3, 2015 — called in to support the Baltimore Police Department after riots convulsed the city starting on April 27, and a curfew was enforced.
Although the city was braced for further violence, much of the video footage depicts seemingly peaceful gatherings on the street. It also includes extended surveillance of protest marches conducted in daylight, when the curfew was not in operation.
The video is alarming to privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was sent the videos in response to a Freedom of Information of Act request.
“The FBI takes the position that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they’re out in public places,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News. But when hours of video showing peaceful protests are retained by the FBI, he said, “you really run the risk of chilling the right to protest.”
The footage appears to contradict previous claims by the FBI that it does not monitor peaceful protests. In March, when BuzzFeed News asked the agency about its flights over Baltimore, it sent this statement:
“The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground. The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected first amendment activity, and any FBI aviation support to a local law enforcement agency must receive high level approvals.”
When asked about the new videos, the agency maintained that it was not monitoring protests. The surveillance “was intended to identify areas of potential violence or criminal activity in support of the Baltimore Police Department,” it told BuzzFeed News by email. “There is no identification or tracking of lawful protesters.”
The footage also includes intriguing glimpses of small drones flying at low altitude over the city at night.
The FBI said that it did not fly drones over Baltimore, and it is unclear who owned or operated them. Both the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police told BuzzFeed News that they do not have drones, and were not responsible for those seen in the videos.
This isn’t the first time the FBI has released surveillance video from its aircraft. In January, the agency published footage showing the fatal shooting of Robert "LaVoy" Finicum after a traffic stop by the Oregon State Police. Finicum was a member of the militia that had occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, prompting an armed stand-off with federal authorities.
But this is the largest collection of FBI spy plane video released to date. It confirms the capabilities documented by BuzzFeed News in April, in a report on government aerial surveillance. The released footage includes both regular video and infrared night-vision.
The earlier BuzzFeed News analysis indicated the FBI planes typically watch their targets from an altitude of about a mile. The new videos show both zoomed out and zoomed in footage. “We can see them recording from quite an altitude, but zoomed in watching individual groups of protestors and intersections,” Wessler said.
On occasions, the camera follows groups of people or vehicles as they move down the street. However, the resolution of the released videos isn’t good enough to recognize individual faces or read car license plates.
Wessler told BuzzFeed News that the ACLU was surprised to receive the videos. In October 2015, when it was sent flight and evidence logs from the flights over Baltimore, it was told that the FOIA request had been completed in full.
Those evidence logs documented the collection of video and “electronic surveillance” — raising the question of whether the planes flew with devices called “stingrays” that can track the cell phones of people below. However, in March, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen told BuzzFeed News that the flights over Baltimore collected video evidence only.