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Black Lives Matter Oakland

An aerial drone view of a Juneteenth rally and march at the Port of Oakland in California on June 19, 2020. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Police Aerial Surveillance Threatens Freedom to Protest

"We must act now to protect future protestors from the civil liberties infringements the government conjures on a regular basis. Aerial surveillance of protests must stop."

The ACLU of Northern California has concluded a year-long Freedom of Information campaign by uncovering massive spying on Black Lives Matter protests from the air. The California Highway Patrol directed aerial surveillance, mostly done by helicopters, over protests in Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, Placerville, Riverside, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Luis Obispo. The footage, which you can watch online, includes police zooming in on individual protestors, die-ins, and vigils for victims of police violence.

"Many people would be deterred from attending a demonstration protesting against police violence if they knew the police were going to film their face, and potentially identify them."

You can sign the ACLU’s petition opposing this surveillance here

Dragnet aerial surveillance is often unconstitutional. In summer 2021, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program, which surveilled large swaths of the city without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment right to privacy for city residents. Police planes or helicopters flying overhead can easily track and trace an individual as they go about their day—before, during, and after a protest. If a government helicopter follows a group of people leaving a protest and returning home or going to a house of worship, there are many facts about these people that can be inferred. 

Not to mention, high-tech political spying makes people vulnerable to retribution and reprisals by the government. Despite their constitutional rights, many people would be chilled and deterred from attending a demonstration protesting against police violence if they knew the police were going to film their face, and potentially identify them and keep a record of their First Amendment activity.

The U.S. government has been spying on protest movements for as long as there have been protest movements. The protests for Black Lives in the summer of 2020 were no exception. For over a year, civil rights groups and investigative journalists have been uncovering the diversity of invasive tactics and technologies used by police to surveil protestors and activists exercising their First Amendment rights. Earlier this year, for example, EFF uncovered how the Los Angeles Police Department requested Amazon Ring surveillance doorbell footage of protests in an attempt to find “criminal behavior.” We also discovered that police accessed BID cameras in Union Square to spy on protestors

Like the surveillance used against water protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Occupy movements across the country, or even the Civil Rights movements in the mid-twentieth century, it could takes years or even decades to uncover all of the surveillance mobilized by the government during the summer of 2020. Fortunately, the ACLU of Northern California has already exposed CHPs aerial surveillance against the protests for Black lives.

We must act now to protect future protestors from the civil liberties infringements the government conjures on a regular basis. Aerial surveillance of protests must stop.


Matthew Guariglia

Matthew Guariglia

Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) working on issues of surveillance and privacy at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. 

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