U.S. wars in foreign countries always come home. The latest is the “Gorgon Stare,” wide angle surveillance planes, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, that have now been brought home, to an urban area near you.
In June 2021, a federal appeals court ruled that the surveillance planes flying over Baltimore were an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment. After that, the Capitol Police in Washington, DC announced that they were opening field offices in San Francisco and Tampa, and that the Defense Department had given them use of eight spy planes. These wide-angle surveillance planes were used in the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, particularly in Fallujah. Their name, Gorgon Stare refers to the three snake-haired sisters whose stare could turn a person to stone in Greek mythology. They provide a picture of most of a city at one time and, combined with street level surveillance, they can pretty much track anyone's movements. I spoke to Tracy Rosenberg, Coordinator of Oakland Privacy and Executive Director of Bay Area-based Media Alliance, about Gorgon Stare.
Ann Garrison: Tracy, could you tell me how this technology works?
Tracy Rosenberg: Sure. Gorgon Stare, which is also referred to as Eye in the Sky, is basically a small airplane that flies over an area with large cameras attached to the bottom and shows you a wide angle panoramic view of anything and everything that is going on on the ground underneath. Now, the way the technology is developed so far, what you see is actually a series of pixel sized dots that represent vehicles or people walking down the street. However, when this is combined with other kinds of surveillance on the street level, like closed circuit cameras, automated license plate readers, outdoor microphones, or what have you, there's an ability to specifically track movements in real time across the span of an entire metropolitan area.
AG: What were these spy planes used for in Afghanistan and Iraq?
TR: Well, I'm not an expert on US military operations. But as far as I understand it, they were used for what you would expect, which is basically to track the movements of Afghans and Iraqis, not only those involved in battlefield operations, but also civilians going about their everyday business, due to the scope of the surveillance.
AG: So this is yet another example of a military technology being turned to domestic application. Right?
TR: Absolutely. There is an ongoing flood of technology that comes off the battlefield that is sold to local police in its original or slightly repurposed configuration.
AG: Is it sold or given away? I know they've given away a lot of military surplus.
TR: They have. In the particular case of Gorgon Stare, designer Ross McNutt—that really is his name—is the sort of entrepreneur who is, of course, former military. He has a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. And he has been attempting to sell this technology all over the US. We did a public records request and several cities came up with proposals requisitions, RFPs, although it has not been deployed yet in anywhere but the city of Baltimore.
AG: Shouldn't the decision of the federal appeals court regarding the Baltimore application make this illegal in Washington DC, San Francisco, Tampa, and any other US city?
TR: You would think that it would. That decision is certainly a blow to persistent surveillance systems and Ross McNutt’s attempt to monetize this surveillance technology, in a broad way. The original Baltimore effort was actually funded by a foundation, the John and Laura Arnold Foundation based in Texas, but they have since seen the light and decided they are not willing to continue paying for this technology's expansion since the court decision regarding Baltimore. That ruling applies to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) potentially, but it also applies to other local law enforcement agencies. At the moment, however, it does not apply to the operations of the federal government. That said, it may have some impact as a legal precedent, but further litigation would be required to address both the use by the feds and by the US government in other countries.
So this is a technology that was banned for municipal use in Baltimore. But this is a federal application, even though it's in San Francisco and Tampa, as well as Washington, DC.
The Capitol Police were created by Congress. They are supervised by the Congress of the United States as a sort of intelligence agency. In the wake of the events on January 6, the Capitol Police asked for and received significant additional funds and authority to deliver on their mission of protecting Congress. And, among the other things, they were authorized to open two field offices, one in California, which will be based in San Francisco, and one in Florida, which will be based in Tampa. And the Defense Department gave them eight of the persistent surveillance systems, planes which are equipped with the wide angle surveillance cameras. So it is our expectation that those planes will be used by the Capitol Police. Apparently, the Department of Defense is going to train them on how to use them, and then they will basically become the property of the Capitol Police.
So we are potentially looking at these planes, which have been found unconstitutional by an appeals court, flying over Washington, San Francisco, Tampa, and other areas under the auspices of the Capitol Police. It's very upsetting.
AG: And this is supposed to be justified by some domestic threat?
TR: Well, it's even more specific than domestic threats. In general, the Capitol Police has jurisdiction, as it were, specifically regarding threats to members of Congress.
AG: So, at least in theory, all of this has been justified for the protection of the 435 members of the US Congress? Or will it have police applications in San Francisco, Tampa, and wherever else?
TR: Well, we do, of course, have Congresspeople who reside in the State of California. And since they're opening up field offices, one in Florida and one in California, we can assume that the jurisdiction likely expands to most of the western states. So there certainly are Congresspeople here, but what we're basically talking about is a form of mass surveillance that will impact pretty much everyone where these planes are flown.
Another sort of concerning aspect of this is that the Capitol Police have been authorized, basically, to participate in all kinds of law enforcement sharing arrangements, which include data sharing, so they'll have access to local law enforcement information and FBI files, and they'll be collaborating with all of these entities. So it's basically sort of another form of federal police that will become very active both in the cities it’s sent to. And we have always found that when there are active data-sharing agreements with local police and federal entities, the federal entities become involved with helping local police do their local police stuff. So I think we can safely assume that this equipment and this technology, which again, has been ruled unconstitutional, will eventually play some role in law enforcement operations.
In the surveillance and privacy community, we commonly use the term “mission creep,” which is what it sounds like: basically the idea that if the thing that the surveillance technology is specifically for is not active, at any given moment, you can pretty much assume that because it's there, it will be repurposed to whatever law enforcement is working on at the time. And we see no reason why that won't happen because basically, you've got a number of planes on the ground and they're going to be used for something.
AG: Your work is, in large part, organizing resistance to this sort of thing. What's the state of the resistance?
TR: It's interesting; we put together an Oakland Privacy action as soon as we learned about this. We wrote to the Capitol Police, we wrote to Zoe Lofgren, a Congressperson for San Jose who actually chairs the committee that supervises the Capitol Police. And we wrote to San Francisco's Mayor London Breed. We sent 500 or 600 electronic appeals expressing concern about this. And we haven't heard a thing back yet. No response.
I think the problem here is that the January 6 Capitol Riot has become an excuse to do things that would be totally unacceptable in the previous environment, but are now considered totally OK. So in a way, we are replicating a lot of the mistakes that were made after the bombing of the World Trade Towers on September 11 2001. Officials and authorities are basically saying, “It's okay, something bad happened. Therefore, we can sort of throw out all of the normal cautions and wildly proceed because it's an emergency, and therefore, we can do anything we want.”
AG: Which was predictable in both cases.
AG: It seems like surveillance technologies just keep getting worse and more prevalent. Do you see any reason to be optimistic?
TR: Well, the Baltimore decision was certainly good news, and it's important to say that Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott had them taken down shortly after assuming office and before the court ruling. As a Baltimore City Councilor, he had already been strongly opposed to these planes. But of course the lawsuit continued, and after the use of the planes had been upheld, both at the lower court and appeals court levels, it was brought back for reconsideration by an en banc panel, which is sort of a secondary appeal process. And that appeals court ruling, which came out about a month ago, is probably one of the most constitutionally accurate rulings ever to come out of the US court system. It’s a really strong defense of Carpenter versus United States, and an extremely strong defense of the concept of unconstitutional search and seizure that is found in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
So I do take a lot of heart at that ruling. I think it's extraordinary. But when it comes to these particular planes, unfortunately, we will probably—as is often the case with surveillance technology—have to wait until it’s misused, as it no doubt will be.
Then, at that point, the resistance will have to ramp up, unfortunately, and we go through this all of the time. We're told that surveillance equipment will be used in very limited ways, with discretion and restraint, but it never is. However, when you're at the beginning phase of the process, those statements given to the public have to be proven wrong, before you can get political traction to make something stop. So, unfortunately, we will have to wait for this equipment to be used when it shouldn't be to make the case that it needs to be taken out of the skies.
AG: Are there any more lawsuits underway?
TR: Not that I'm aware of, but it is not impossible that someone will find one. Again, in this case, it will likely happen after this equipment is deployed on the ground, when there is evidence that it is not being used for the purpose intended.
AG: Okay, is there anything else you'd like to say about this?
TR: Well, I think it's important to say that this is just another example of the ways in which the private surveillance market, heavily impacted by the US military, is looking to exploit current events to make money. We have a situation here where ex-military are selling us solutions to crime and terrorism, and public money is pouring out for all of these various contraptions.
What we have here is a surveillance system that just shows you pixels, and those pixels have to be converted into meaningful intelligence. So a lot of what it produces is useless information that is being collected more for the sake of collecting it.
And this is an ongoing problem with surveillance. Basically, authorities decide that they want to collect all of the information that it’s technologically possible to collect, then see whether it works and decide what to do with it later.
AG: So it's an experiment as much as anything else at this point?
TR: Yes, I think that's entirely right. And, unfortunately, the urban areas of the United States are lining up to try all these gizmos out.
AG: Okay, I guess I should ask one more question, which is, what can the ordinary citizen do to try to help the resistances?
TR: Well, I think that we definitely have to be prepared for that moment when we start to see these planes flying over San Francisco and Tampa and wherever else they fly them. I do think that people should be looking at public records and FOIA requests. For example, if the San Francisco Police are collaborating with the Capitol Police, we should be able to obtain their records.
The Public Records Act is a bit easier to use than FOIA, and the Capitol Police are not subject to FOIA. So the fact that they are leaving DC and coming to work with local police, gives us an opportunity to find out considerably more about Capitol Police operations. That's important.
When it comes time to mobilize, I think we should make it clear to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and other mayors that this is not okay. January 6 was terrible. but it’s no excuse for flying planes over our heads to record us every single time we leave our house.
AG: Okay. Tracy Rosenberg, thank you for speaking to Black Agenda Report.
TR: You're very welcome. Thanks for helping spread the word about this.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace through her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. You can support her independent journalism on Patreon . She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at ann(at)anngarrison(dot)com.