Shortly after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flew a Predator drone over the city in an effort to surveil the ongoing protests against police brutality occurring there. The drone, which took off from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and flew in a holding pattern over protests for approximately 90 minutes, recorded video from a height of 20,000 feet. Now, thanks to a recent Freedom of Information Request, you can watch that video.
The video, which CBP published online Monday, was initially requested by Emily Crose, a network security professional. Crose told Gizmodo that she filed the FOIA request because “there needs to be attention paid to the ways local policing is being handled” and that she felt the public needed to be aware of the degree to which surveillance was being used on everyday Americans.
“When federal agencies like Customs and Border Patrol can be called upon to surveil local demonstrators without a justification that comports directly with the agency’s mission, it contributes to the ways our communities are over-policed,” said Crose, in a direct message. “I would also point out that the level of surveillance being done on local communities during protests, particularly in the last year needs to stick in the memory of the public.”
Last year, public disclosures about the CBP drone set off a firestorm of criticism—and led to disclosures about similar aerial surveillance being conducted by other federal agencies. The incident inspired a debate about federal policing tactics and spurred some lawmakers to send letters to agencies demanding additional information about their practices. Amazingly, the CBP director at the time claimed the drones were not being used for spying but were instead merely “providing assistance to state and local [officials] so they could make sure that their cities and their towns were protected.”
Despite these claims, the CBP has repeatedly been found engaging in this kind of surveillance—even apparently using Predators to surveil indigenous pipeline activists at their homes on multiple occasions. An investigation found that the Department of Homeland Security (the parent agency for CBP) deployed aerial surveillance in 15 different U.S. cities to watch protesters amidst last year’s violent and chaotic nationwide protests.
Despite the fact that drones of this kind come equipped with a bevy of powerful cameras, the video captured on May 29th doesn’t actually reveal that much. On what was clearly an overcast day, the Predator captured mostly muddy albeit unearthly footage of the heavy cloud formations shrouding the city. It looks more like a David Lynch music video than anything considered useful to police intelligence units.
Crose, who said she also requested information from the Federation Aviation Administration regarding law enforcement flights, said she thought the images were important more for their context than the actual content.
“When we have federal law enforcement organizations flying surveillance technology used in war zones...we have to be honest about the kind of fear this puts into local communities,” she said, noting it “has an effect.”