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House Dems demand FBI, others stop spying on Black Lives Matter protests

Law-abiding Americans shouldn't be surveilled when peacefully protesting, says a letter signed by 35 congressional Democrats.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Corinne Reichert
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Black Lives Matter protests are sweeping across the nation.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A letter signed by 35 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and published Tuesday has asked several federal agencies to stop the surveillance of people taking part in Black Lives Matter protests. Describing the "chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans," the letter demands that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Guard Bureau, and Customs and Border Protection permanently cease surveilling peaceful protests.

Black Lives Matter protests are continuing across the US and globally as people demonstrate against the recent deaths of George FloydBreonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and against systemic racism. 

"We stand with the millions of Americans in hundreds of communities who are peacefully calling for transformational changes to better our nation by addressing the systemic racism and injustice," the letter says.

Surveillance of these protests breaches the First Amendment right to protest and the Fourth Amendment, which is designed to protect Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, the members of Congress say.

The letter says that in the last two weeks, all four agencies have been using tech that's a "vast overreach" of power -- like the FBI and National Guard using aircraft equipped with infrared and electro-optical cameras; CBP using Predator drones to collect live video feeds of protests; and the DEA being given authority for "covert surveillance" over people protesting the death of Floyd.

This is in addition, the letter says, to using spying technologies like facial recognition, automated license plate readers and Stingrays, which mimic cell towers to collect call, text, browsing and location data from  phones .

Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest

"Downloads for encrypted messaging apps have spiked during recent demonstrations," the letter says. "Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration."

The letter, spearheaded by Reps. Anna Eshoo of California and Bobby Rush of Illinois, was signed by members of Congress from New York, California, Maryland, Washington, DC, Washington state, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida and Vermont.

It was addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Guard Bureau Chief General Joseph Lengyel, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea and CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. 

The FBI said it's supporting law enforcement across local, state and federal agencies with keeping the public safe.

"Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity," the FBI said in an emailed statement. "The FBI does not conduct surveillance based solely on First Amendment protected activity."

The National Guard Bureau had no comment on the letter but said it used an aircraft "to provide situational awareness" to National Guardsmen posted in Washington DC overnight on June 2-3. 

"The mission focused on key federal buildings, infrastructure and lines of communications (e.g. roads, intersections and landmarks) that were observed in order to support local law enforcement," Wayne Hall, National Guard Bureau spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "During this mission, no US citizens were specifically monitored."

The CBP didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. The DEA declined to comment.

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.