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Congress pushes back on White House stonewalling about biometric spying on protesters


The White House and House of Representatives are digging in for a lengthy fight over the legitimacy of digital surveillance of ongoing peaceful civilian protests nationwide.

A month after unsuccessfully demanding accountability by four executive branch agencies for biometric and other digital forms of surveillance, House representatives have delivered new and more-pointed questions.

Representatives Anna Eshoo of California and Bobby Rush of Illinois are leading Congressional colleagues in a campaign to discover how and why Americans are being surveilled as they peacefully protest anti-Black police brutality.

It is not known if or when the new request for information will be honored.

Separate from this effort, the House Oversight Committee is investigating surveillance of protesters, focusing on, among other issues, the possible use of facial recognition systems on protesters.

Committee members also want to know whether any such systems have been evaluated for accuracy by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, according to FedScoop, which covers how the federal government uses technology.

Eshoo, who represents parts of Silicon Valley, and Rush, who represents sections of Chicago that are among the toughest in terms of police-community relations, say that any surveillance of peaceful protesters violates their First and Fourth Amendments.

Their first letter, June 9, was sent to the FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, the National Guard Bureau and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which allegedly have deployed drones or other means of inconspicuously identifying people in and around protests.

The National Guard and the DEA ignored the request. Replies from the FBI and Customs appeared to leave the Representatives wanting, prompting the second request.

In the FBI’s brief response July 2 to the first note, a spokesperson said the agency’s mission made surveillance legal and necessary during unrest. It also said it would be inappropriate to discuss in any detail anything about its surveillance activities.

Customs and Border Patrol said it had been asked to fly an unmanned aircraft over Minneapolis, the epicenter of protests beginning May 29. It could not peer through clouds on scene, however, and it left the city’s airspace, 455 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border.

The federal government is known to be aggressively ramping up its facial recognition capabilities. A week before the first protests in Minneapolis, it was reported that Department of Homeland Security were concerned that masks worn to suppress transmission of Covid-19 will hinder their identification abilities.

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