#Privacy: The DEA has been given immediate authority to conduct covert surveillance on George Floyd protesters

Temporary authorization has been given to the DEA to exercise surveillance powers that are outside of the scope of their usual authority

A two-page memorandum obtained by Buzzfeed News has revealed that The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been given new authority to “conduct covert surveillance” on those participating in protests following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25.

The memorandum details DEA Acting Director Timothy Shea’s request for the approval of temporary authority to “provide support on a nationwide basis to enforce federal criminal laws in the wake of protests arising from the death of George Floyd.” The authority has been granted for fourteen days and is to commence immediately.

The report acknowledges that the federal crimes committed in the wake of George Floyd’s death are not largely drug related, but the Attorney General has requested that the DEA “be designated to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd.”

Their new prerogative made clear in the report is as follows:

  1. To conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety
  2. To share intelligence with federal, state, local and tribal counterparts
  3. If necessary, to intervene as Federal law enforcement officers to protect both participants and spectators in the protests
  4. If necessary, to engage in investigative and enforcement activity, including, but not limited to, conducting interviews, conducting searches, and making arrests for violations of Federal law.

Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on Saturday that blamed, “anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics”. No evidence was provided to support this claim. As well as the DEA, he stated that the FBI, US Marshals and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are to be deployed to “support local efforts to enforce Federal Law.”

In Minneapolis and Minnesota, Customs and Border Patrol flew a drone over the city as protests commenced to help law enforcement as needed. Also, in Minnesota and New York, officers are continuing to use Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition software that recently came under fire for scraping people’s photos on social media, counter to their terms of service. In Washington County, police are arming themselves with Amazon’s Rekognition software.

Policy officer at Privacy International, Kuda Howe, explained that the use of the drone in this context is a clear example of how easy it is for some governments to use military grade surveillance equipment to reign in political and social dissent.

Reports have shown that facial recognition technology are not adept at accurately identifying Black faces since the algorithm used in the assemblage process of the device is primarily trained to identify white male faces. This means that the risk of being wrongly identified as a protester is much more likely to happen to members of the Black community.

David Harding, chief technology officer for ImageWare Systems, claims, “Anytime you do facial recognition, it’s a best guess. It’s a probability score. Anytime you’re in an area where they [law enforcement of the government] are using facial recognition, you have to worry about being falsely matched to someone. Or what’s worse, someone being falsely matched to you.”

Privacy groups are encouraging protesters to keep their heads covered in order to prevent themselves from becoming subjects of state surveillance.

Hugh Handeyside, a senior attorney for the ACLU, stated, “Drug enforcement agencies should not be conducting covert surveillance of protests and First Amendment protected speech.”

“That kind of monitoring and information sharing may well constitute unwarranted investigation of people exercising their constitutional rights to seek justice. The executive branch continues to run headlong in the wrong direction.”

Three DEA sources told BuzzFeed News they are troubled by the memo and see it as an example of the Justice Department potentially abusing its power to smear the protests and crack down on protected First Amendment activity.

The sources requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.


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