Police Aerial Surveillance Program Scrapped In Miami-Dade, Operational Elsewhere

Miami-Dade, Florida (TFC)— Reports are indicating Miami-Dade police are scrapping plans to launch an aerial surveillance program. The news comes after a flurry of concerns that the program would violate the privacy of residents in the area.

According to Miami Herald, Miami-Dade authorities planned to test aerial surveillance over localized “high crime areas.” Officially, the craft would “capture images” of people across a 32 square mile area. Following public backlash against the proposal, county police director Juan Perez admitted: “I’d rather maintain positive community relations.”

Miami Herald states police officials based the program off surveillance operations conducted during Iraq 2003. Aerial surveillance aided in the detection of roadside bombs, and the tracking of high-value targets. Of course, the optics of military transfer of tactics and equipment to police hasn’t fared well in the public square.

Privacy advocates such as Florida’s ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) applauded Perez’s response to public opinion. “Decisions about what technology law enforcement agencies are using”, said Florida ACLU director Howard Simon, “should be made in the open with input from the public and their elected representatives, rather than through a fast-track grant process”.

    Aerial Surveillance, Data Collection, And Protests

 It’s an unspoken question of whether Miami-Dade’s surveillance craft would’ve only focused on crime. More and more, aerial surveillance is becoming synonymous with political actions and protests. The civil implications of these repeated operations have startled many as clear examples of how far they can go.

Aerial surveillance reports have persisted since the Baltimore riots and subsequent protests. In these actions, an FBI surveillance fleet masked by a fake company was outed by techies and indie journalists. The collective gathered sightings of rotor planes circling the riots for days and traced them back to the bureau. What technologies were deployed during this operation is unknown, though infrared was a possibility.

The months following have seen large protests and riots monitored by similar activity. During Milwaukee’s riots, the author witnessed and filmed a variety of air traffic which orbited the city for days. These included military helicopters, rotor planes similar to Baltimore, and other craft. More recently, protests erupting in St. Paul following the Philando Castile not guilty verdict experienced similar activity.

Although not confirmed, it’s been speculated these craft might be outfitting with IMSI catchers. Also known as Stingrays, or cell site simulators, these mimic cell towers and collect data from nearby devices. Most effective for geo-locating and tracking, Stingrays can also be used to monitor call and text data. However, exactly how the devices function and how widespread their use remains unclear.

During a phone interview with TFC, IMSI catcher researcher Peter Ney confessed that this aerial IMSI catcher is a possibility. When his research team went to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, however, no unusual tower activity was detected from aerial surveillance craft. Ney and company made headlines recently after field-testing a device to detect Stingray activity. The device, called Seaglass, was tested in both Seattle and Milwaukee with mixed results.

Florida’s ACLU commended Miami-Dade authorities for being not only informing the public of their surveillance pursuits but also listening to disapproval. That’s not the case in much of the country, especially densely populated inner cities.

Barring isolated cases of politicians introducing bills to regulate police surveillance, these programs function without public oversight. The lack of uniformity in policing, when it comes to cooperating with public demands, dosen’t help either. Regardless of whatever local authorities claim, it may be best for residents to watch the skies, especially when the chanting starts.