Urban surveillance in The City of Angels: Watch out for the eyes in the sky

Posted on Oct 30, 2020 by Caleb Chen
Urban surveillance in LA_ Watch out for the eyes in the sky

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has recently gained approval to start recording the aerial footage captured by its helicopters. The police say that being able to record video surveillance of protests will help increase “operational readiness.” The hardware to make this possible was donated to the LAPD by the Los Angeles Police Foundation – a philanthropic organization that specializes in getting the LAPD access to gear that law enforcement are unable to spend taxpayer dollars on. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah told the LA Times:

“This is the height of state repression and surveillance. It’s criminalizing our right to protest.”

Aircraft above Los Angeles are doing more than just video surveillance

Recent Black Lives Matter protests around the country have sparked aerial surveillance at a federal and state level in multiple cities. So much so, that several Congressional members sent a letter  to the National Guard, the FBI, the DEA, and the CBP demanding an end to surveillance on protests. This was after it was revealed that the Department of Justice explicitly gave the DEA open writ to surveill protestors. All this highlights that aerial surveillance now has a second impact. The days of planes and helicopters flying over head and recording just video are long gone. In the LA area, local police departments have been using aircraft mounted Stingray devices since 2009 at least.

A Stingray is essentially a fake cell tower that can be used as a vector of attack on the phones that unwittingly connect to the Stingray instead of a real cell tower. Plane mounted Stingrays are also called “Dirtboxes” and can be used to surveill and even intercept cellular communications below the plane. The same way that video recordings of a protest could reveal video evidence that somebody was at a protest, the data siphoned up by the Dirtboxes includes unique identifiers from the phones in protestors’ pockets.

Mohammad Tajsar, a senior attorney with ACLU of Southern California commented to the LA Times:

“It’s bad enough that Angelenos in overpoliced neighborhoods have to deal with constant surveillance and harassment from the skies, but the LAPD’s plans to keep that footage forever adds insult to injury.

Tajsar went as far to call this type of surveillance and longterm storage of surveillance information “an intimidation tactic, to try to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech.”

He’s right. The fact of the matter is, these protests and other domestic surveillance programs are mostly used against Americans that have a Fourth Amendment right that is violated by these planes and helicopters. What is also clear is this: Those that attend protests in LA, and other cities around the world, should properly obfuscate their biometrics and probably leave their phone at home.