Motherboard has obtained video recorded from powerful infrared cameras mounted on a Minnesota State Patrol spy plane that has repeatedly circled over Minneapolis during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The black-and-white footage is similar in style to military drone videos from war zones, and it demonstrates the power of the domestic surveillance being routinely used in American cities.
The footage released does not show the Black Lives Matter protests, but it shows footage in which people shine a laser at the plane from the ground. The plane locates those people, and within 20 minutes the suspects on the ground were surrounded by police.
The video was released as part of a larger request that included dates the spy plane was circling protests after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but police have not yet released that footage. The State Patrol video was recorded from 5,700 feet above Minneapolis from around 10:30- 10:50 p.m. on June 4—video from other dates were withheld pending active investigations.
Flight records show that Minnesota State Patrol frequently surveilled Black Lives Matter protests in the Twin Cities from several thousand feet above using their Cirrus spy plane N115SP. Public records reveal, for the first time, footage recorded by the spy plane as well as modifications made to the interior of the aircraft. The footage and documents provide an inside look at police aerial surveillance at a time when protests around the country are being closely surveilled by local, state, and federal law enforcement.
The Minnesota State Patrol ordered the spy plane in 2016 from Cirrus and it has since been spotted by the naked eye by protesters, and very commonly via adsbexchange.com and other flight-tracking websites. Here is its flight pattern on May 30 of this year; protesters had burned down the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct the night before:
The footage obtained by Motherboard was taken between May 30 and June 5. It does not show active protests; instead, the footage appears to show people on the ground attempting to blind the plane’s pilots and/or its instruments. Lasers are commonly used to distract or temporarily blind pilots. The Minnesota State Patrol did not explain why it only released this specific footage: “The State Patrol flight section provided all video from your data request that was available,” a spokesperson for the MSP said. “The question on the use of the laser and charging is an open investigation.”
The footage as well as additional documents obtained by Motherboard, however, show some of the capabilities of the spy plane. For example, the footage is high-res, and at one point the plane’s camera zooms in and refocuses extremely quickly and seamlessly.
A Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Aviation Administration revealed that in March of 2017, the Minnesota State Patrol contracted with a company called Integrated Surveillance and Defense Inc. The document describes how the company "Installed … Cirrus Laptop Pedestal Mount kit," an example of which can be seen in their marketing brochure pictured below:
Another example of the work done by this defense contractor, which is hidden inside the fuselages of many aircraft (larger than the Cirrus), is pictured here:
It is rare and usually takes considerable time for local, state, and federal police forces to release footage obtained by their aircraft.
Thermal imaging technology has come under scrutiny due to the invasive nature of the technology. In the 2001 United States Supreme Court case Danny Lee Kyllo v. United States, the court decided that using a FLIR device to monitor the heat from a person in their home was a search and required a warrant.
The video was released following a request for data obtained by the spy plane on May 30 as well as June 4. At this time the footage from May 30, which would be focused on the uprising and protests below, has not been released.