Members of Congress demand answers after they said border protection flew drones over Detroit protests

Officials allege that private data was taken from cell phones, license plates

DETROIT – As protesters took to the streets, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) took to the skies -- flying drones over marches in Detroit, according to members of Congress.

In the letter to the heads of the CBP, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and National Guard, Reps. Brenda Lawrence (MI-14) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-3), along with 33 other Democratic members of Congress demanded answers.

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Some members of Congress said predator drones were used to collect and disseminate live video feeds over protests in multiple states.

Members of congress also said private data from cell phones and license plates were captured. They also alleged facial recognition software was also used.

CBP denied those claims in a statement. They said a predator aircraft did not fly over Detroit at anytime during the protest. They also said their aircrafts do not have license plate readers, facial recognition technology or cell phone intercepting technology.

“You’re taking my picture and putting me in databases and I don’t know what’s happening. That to me is crossing a line,” Lawrence said.

Agencies, like CBP, are allowed to use drones to monitor within 100 miles of an international border. In Michigan, that covers nearly the entire state and Democrats were quick to point out the same drone sightings were not reported at protests in Lansing during the most heated weeks of the state’s stay at home order.

“There is no Certificate of Authorization with the FAA that would even allow an AMO Predator to fly in Detroit air space,” CBP officials said.

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“What is just very telling again is the fact that we witnessed something very horrific at Lansing with armed folks threatening the legislature but you never saw spying planes over them,” Tlaib said.

Drones and spy planes were also used over the protests in Buffalo, San Antonio and Washington DC. In Minneapolis, the acting head of the CBP Mark Morgan telling reporters they were not providing any resources to survey lawful peaceful protesters. But were providing assistance to state and local law enforcement so they could make sure that their cities and towns were protected. An answer Lawrence indicated wasn’t good enough.

“When you’re protesting and walking that is your constitutional right,” Lawrence said, adding she’s heard on Capitol Hill the FBI was working to prepare a database for Black Lives Matter protesters and members, which she found troubling. “What are you doing with that data and why are you doing it, and why didn’t those who were walking know you were gathering data on them?”

Both Lawrence and Talib said neither they nor the House oversight committee had received a response from federal law enforcement. Several attempts were made to reach CBP in Detroit for a flight path and list of data potentially collected from local protesters.

Read the full statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) below:

“Our U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Predator aircraft did not fly over Detroit at anytime during the protests.

None of our manned or unmanned aircraft have facial recognition

None of our manned or unmanned aircraft have license plate readers

None of manned or unmanned aircraft have any type of cell phone intercepting technology

There is no Certificate of Authorization with the FAA that would even allow an AMO Predator to fly in Detroit air space.

The UAS operated by AMO do not ‘collect’ data on individuals. These aircraft are only equipped with cameras, radar, and/or other technologies to support CBP components in patrolling the border, conducting surveillance as part of a law enforcement investigation or tactical operation, and gathering footage that may assist in disaster relief or responses to other emergencies. AMO aircraft can provide real-time, live video feeds to ground based law enforcement officials, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, and minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.

The imaging systems aboard these aircraft alone cannot be used to identify a person, or collect any personally identifiable information, thereby assuring their privacy and protecting their constitutional rights. This is evident in the following link that shows the aircrafts camera capability.

CBP stands united in holding those accountable for the death of George Floyd and in supporting lawful, peaceful protests. CBP’s support in communities and cities nationwide is to protect innocent Americans and help ensure safe and peaceful protests which we have done in numerous cities with our manned and unmanned aircraft.”

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