DEA reportedly authorized to 'conduct covert surveillance' of George Floyd protests

Authorization temporarily expands scope of agency usually tasked with investigating federal drug crimes, according to a memo obtained by BuzzFeed News.

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Protesters march in Minneapolis while decrying the killing of George Floyd.

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The Drug Enforcement Agency has temporarily been authorized to "conduct covert surveillance" of people participating in protests over the death George Floyd and share intelligence it's gathered with other law enforcement agencies, according to a DEA memorandum obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Floyd's death "has spawned widespread protests across the nation, which, in some instances, have included violence and looting," said the DEA memo. "Police agencies in certain areas of the country have struggled to maintain and/or restore order."

The DEA is typically restricted to enforcing drug related federal crimes. But the DEA memo, attributed to DEA Acting Director Timothy Shea, requests it be given nationwide authority for 14 days to "enforce any federal crime committed as a result of [the] protests." A senior Justice Department official approved the request on Sunday, according to the memo.

The DEA would also have the authority to intervene to protect participants and spectators and to make arrests and conduct interviews and searches, according to the memo.

A DEA spokesman declined to comment on the memo, while the Justice Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

It wasn't immediately clear what tack the DEA would take in conducting its surveillance, but there are several tech-based options available to it. The Department of Homeland Security used social media accounts to monitor the Black Lives Matter movement after anti-police demonstrations erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.

Twitter sued the US government in 2014 in an attempt to detail surveillance requests the company had received, but in April a federal judge ruled in favor of the government's case that detailing the requests would jeopardize the country's safety.

Facial recognition is also increasingly being used by law enforcement across the US,  although it's not always accurate, especially among ethnic groups, women and young people. Privacy concerns were revived earlier this year amid revelations about Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition app being used by US law enforcement to identify suspects and other people by comparing photos to a database of images scraped from social media and other sites.

Police have also looked at using contact tracing, a public health practice designed to help stop the spread of diseases like the coronavirus outbreak, as a model for criminal investigations. After protests erupted in Minneapolis over Floyd's killing, Minnesota's public safety commissioner, John Harrington, said that police were starting to contact-trace the demonstrators they've arrested. 

Some demonstrations across the US have turned violent after confrontations between police and protesters. The protests were sparked after a video was shared of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 pressing his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes as Floyd repeatedly says "I can't breathe." Floyd, who was 46, died. Four officers were later fired, including Derek Chauvin, who's been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.