Rittenhouse’s plane is part of widespread surveillance

MADISON, Wisconsin. – Prosecutors working to convict Kyle Rittenhouse in the shooting of three people during a protest against police brutality in Wisconsin presented as evidence surveillance video taken from an FBI plane circling thousands of feet in the sky. above chaos.

Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injured Gaige Grosskreutz during the demonstration in Kenosha in August 2020. His trial began on Monday. Rittenhouse claims he fired in self-defense after the men attacked him; prosecutors say he got into a volatile situation and video from the plane will show he chased Rosenbaum.

Here’s a look at the government’s efforts to track people’s activities from the air:


Yes. Aerial surveillance of protests is in fact very common. According to an August 2020 Air Force Inspector General report, the National Guard used surveillance planes to monitor protests in Washington, DC, Minnesota, Arizona and California after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

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The FBI used planes to monitor protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 police shooting against Michael Brown and in Baltimore to track protests after Freddie Gray’s death in custody in 2015. The Democrat Barack Obama was president at both of these events. Law enforcement also used aerial surveillance to monitor a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 that was found to be fatal. Republican Donald Trump was then president.

An Associated Press investigation in 2015 found that the FBI had built a fleet of at least 50 surveillance planes that carried out more than 100 flights in 11 states during a month-long period in the spring of the same year under the Obama administration. The AP has traced the planes to at least 13 bogus companies designed to hide the identity of the plane and pilots.

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The AP’s review also found that the Drug Enforcement Administration had at least 92 surveillance planes in 2011 under Obama. The US Marshals Service also operated its own aerial surveillance program.

Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer specializing in surveillance issues, said government agencies clearly carried out more aerial surveillance missions during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, when Trump was president .

“The result here has been particularly aggressive,” she said. “It appears the response has been unusual and unprecedented. “


Pilots can film scenes below them using standard cameras, infrared sensors that capture body heat, and light sensors with sufficient resolution to show the building features, basic vehicle features and movements such as people walking or cycling. Planes can also carry technology that mimics cell phone towers, allowing agencies to track people’s cell phones even if they’re not making a call or in public. Much of the technology was developed for use by the US military in Iraq as part of a project dubbed Gorgon Stare after the mythical Greek monster that could turn men to stone with a single stroke. eye.

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Even though the video images are blurry, agencies can still use them in combination with other data to discover people’s identities.


In general, yes. Aerial surveillance of people in public places is legal and is no different from a video camera mounted on a lamppost, said William McGeveren, a University of Minnesota law professor specializing in data privacy and liberty. expression. Government agencies do not need a mandate to carry out such surveillance, he said.

However, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that prolonged surveillance of an individual over a large area was illegal. And the U.S. 4th Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Baltimore Police Department’s six-month trial aerial surveillance program was unconstitutional because the wide-angle cameras on planes put virtually everyone in the city. city ​​under surveillance for 12 hours a day. The decision came after black activists sued the city.

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Government agencies can also place limits on their own programs. The Air Force report found that the National Guard never obtained the required clearance from the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of the Army to initiate aerial surveillance of Floyd’s protests. A spokesperson for the FBI field office in Milwaukee, which is responsible for Kenosha, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. The FBI’s national press office also did not respond to an email.


Such surveillance can help police react in real time to protests that turn violent and identify and arrest bad actors after the fact, thus protecting public safety.

But civil rights activists fear that such surveillance could lead government agencies to follow people’s every move, leaving people afraid to leave their homes or be seen associating with others in the process. political functions and amounting to violations of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and association. The mere presence of government planes can intimidate those on the ground; two military helicopters sounded at protesters during a Floyd protest in Washington last summer, blowing up protesters with a high-speed wind blowing from their rotors.

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And the very existence of the programs can erode trust in government, especially among black leaders. One of the black complainants in the Baltimore case, for example, argued that she visited murder scenes regularly and was concerned that the surveillance program would force police to collect information specific to the murder. his subject.


It is too early to tell. Prosecutors argue that the video will show Rittenhouse chasing Rosenbaum before the situation turned around and Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse, reducing Rittenhouse’s claims of self-defense. Portions of the infrared video prosecutors played in court on Tuesday – filmed at 8,500 feet – showed dozens of small, blurry and indistinct images of people standing or moving along streets and sidewalks. No one seemed recognizable by facial features, although investigators could use the video in combination with other information to place certain people in it.

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The person who shot the video for the FBI was due to return later in the trial, suggesting the jury will see more.


Associated Press reporter Michael Tarm in Kenosha and Gary Fields in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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