It appears the federal government used a U.S. Customs and Border Protection drone to conduct surveillance of Native American activists involved in protesting oil pipelines. This is yet another example of how the federal surveillance state expands without any meaningful limits in place.

According to GIZMODO, on Feb. 21, a CBP Reaper drone operated for over an hour around the home of Tom Goldtooth in Beltrami County, Minnesota. The drone flew at around 20,000, making five-mile wide circles around Goldtooth’s home. Goldtooth serves as executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

“IEN works under the assumption that we’re being watched either by government or industry or both,” Goldtooth said. “In principle, this isn’t surprising. However, it’s disturbing that they are using these multimillion-dollar military drones to circle my home. I’m a peaceful person. I follow our spiritual ways, and there’s no reason for [CBP] to be looking in my windows.”

This isn’t the only apparent surveillance of Native American activists. GIZMODO analyzed drone flights in Minnesota using Tampa-based flight tracking company RadarBox. According to the report, the data suggests that CBP has surveilled multiple Indigenous advocates in the region who have fought against pipelines, including the proposed expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3.

In response to an email inquiry about the Feb. 21 mission, the CBP claimed, “it does not patrol pipeline routes.” As far as the specific mission, the agency said it was either conducting a missing person search or conducting “border security.” The CBP defines this as “a flight that has a direct nexus to the border.”

Goldtooth lives approximately 60 miles from the border.

The Customs and Border Protection agency is not limited to operations near U.S. borders, a fact it admits.

“It is often misunderstood that our operations are limited to a certain distance from the border,” CBP said in an email. “AMO operates aircraft and vessels under 6 USC § 211(f)(3)(C), which authorizes the agency to conduct aviation and maritime operations in support of federal, state, local, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies without any geographic limitation for such operations.”

This isn’t the first time a CBP drone has been deployed on an apparent non-border patrol mission. In May, the federal government used CBP Predator drone over the streets of Minneapolis to surveil protesters in the wake George Floyd’s death.

After the Minneapolis protest surveillance, a CPB spokesperson told Recode that the agency “routinely conducts operations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to assist law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts.”

As GIZMODO pointed out, it remains unclear what kind of technology the CPD Reaper drone carries making it impossible to know what kind of data it can gather beyond video. Whatever data it records, it is likely that the information is stored in permanent databases accessible to state, local and federal law enforcement agencies through fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).

This reveals the intertwined nature of the police state in the U.S. Jurisdictional and agency jurisdictions have been virtually erased by the progressive federalization of policing for the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.”

It also reveals how the surveillance state expands. According to reporting by Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary, the CBP has deployed military surveillance drones at the border since 2006. With no meaningful limits on drone surveillance, we now have those same military UAVs flying over a protest hundreds of miles from the border. This proves warnings about surveillance mission-creep should be heeded. If we allow the government to operate invasive surveillance technology without limits, there will literally be no limits to the level of spying the government will subject us to.


Mike Maharrey

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