Thomas Brewster | Forbes | Source URL
With civil unrest erupting across the U.S., protesters vocalizing their support for the black community are being threatened with military force. America’s streets and skies are being flooded with officers from multiple federal agencies - the Army, FBI, ICE, CBP and DEA to name a few - called in to assist in Trump’s “domination” of dissenting voices.
They come armed with next-generation surveillance technologies, many of them spying from the skies above, hooked up to inconspicuous drones that can autonomously track people. These devices have cost the U.S. government tens of millions of dollars in the last year alone, according to a Forbes review of contract records.
‘The Selfie Drone’
Skydio, a drone startup backed with a passive investment by basketball player Kevin Durant, is perhaps the most surprising recent addition to the government’s aerial surveillance arsenal. Founded by two ex-Google software engineers and former MIT students - CEO Adam Bry and CTO Abraham Bachrach - it made its name as a fun, artificial intelligence-powered, consumer-focused unmanned aerial system.
Some dubbed it the “selfie drone” because of its ability to autonomously track and film a subject, as well as its ease of use via an iPhone or Android smartphone. Its first drone - launched in February 2018 - quickly sold out after rave reviews, one calling it “clearly the smartest drone on the planet.” The Skydio 2, costing $999, was released in 2019, promising to “fly itself while intelligently motion tracking a subject.” The subject could either be a person “doing any activity,” or a car.
Multimillion dollar government contracts
The Silicon Valley-based business is hotly tipped for success, receiving $70 million in total funding to date, including a small investment from Durant, and backing from NVIDIA GPU Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, according to data from investment tracking service Pitchbook, which values the company at over $220 million.
But it's been quietly pivoting to government work in the last year, Forbes discovered. In May, the DEA gave a $190,000 contract to Skydio, following a $16,000 order in August 2019. That same year, it also scored a $3 million contract with the U.S. Army and a $1.5 million deal with the Air Force, as it ramps up government work. Those awards built on work with local police departments that Skydio has been more vocal about. In December, it announced it was supplying the Chula Vista Police Department with drones, though the police agency told local reporters it wasn’t being used for anything other than emergency situations. Forbes also found the Ohio state government and L.A. County Department of Regional Planning were customers.
A local media report covering Ohio’s use of the technology suggested it had facial detection capabilities and was able to dodge objects as it autonomously tracked a person. “As you can see, it'll keep following me. If I'm running on a bike path, and I think it'll try to go around me even here, too, if it sees my face,” said David Gallagher, chief of staff at the Ohio Unmanned Aerial Systems Center. As one former employee explained, this isn’t face recognition, more person recognition: the Skydio tech can detect people in a scene, the user then chooses who to track.
The company’s shift to government work is also evident in Skydio’s efforts to woo the mandarins of Capitol Hill. Forbes found records of recent Skydio lobbying efforts, after it handed $30,000 this year to lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. In return, the firm has been talking with Senators and Representatives, as well as the Executive Office of the President, about unspecified “issues related to supply chain/national security.”
Skydio’s tech could now be put to use on protesters, given its government customer base. (There’s no evidence it has been put to use by agencies asked to deal with the unrest, however). As revealed by Buzzfeed on Monday, the DEA has been given permission to carry out surveillance on protesters and could now apply such tech to spying on crowds gathering across U.S. cities. President Trump has already called in the Air Force and threatened deployment of the U.S. military to clamp down on the protests.
Neither Skydio nor the DEA had responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
America loves drones
Not that Skydio is the only supplier of government drones that could be used for protester surveillance. Far from it. Millions has been spent on a mix of boutique and established providers in the last 12 months.
Last week, the CBP was spotted flying a Predator drone over the protest site in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed after a police officer kneeled on his neck. An official with the CBP also tweeted that the agency had been using drones to track down suspects who’d knocked down officers with an SUV in Buffalo. In the last year alone, the border agency has spent $47 million on services from the Predator manufacturer, General Atomics, a company built by two billionaire brothers, as detailed in a Forbes profile earlier this year. Sister DHS agency, ICE, has been keen on drones of late too: in June last year, it made a purchase of $146,663 in drones from Illinois-based Darley, which resells unmanned aerial systems from a variety of manufacturers, including the famous Chinese company DJI.
The FBI, meanwhile, spent $76,000 on unmanned aircraft in September 2019 via Autonodyne, a Florida-based company that offers automated drone operation. An August 2019 $113,000 order from New York-based consumer tech supplier Adorama in August 2019 showed the FBI’s Counter Improvised Explosive Device Unit bought a drone that was “all weather capable” and could live stream events below. It’s also been updating its drone fleet from Riegl, which uses laser scanners to acquire data in “dangerous” and “hard-to-reach areas.” The agency refused to comment on whether it was carrying out aerial surveillance over protest sites, though aircraft that have previously been linked with the agency have been spotted in the skies around Washington D.C.
The U.S. Marshalls, another Justice Department agency that’s been asked to help quell the protests, spent $52,000 in July 2019 on unmanned aircraft from a little known company called Physical Sciences. It provides small, low-cost drones that look more like consumer UAVs and they’re typically used for high-grade image capture and “tracking uncooperative targets.” ICE is also a Physical Sciences customer, after a $43,000 order in May last year.
Myriad surveillance methods
Altogether, the agencies Trump has asked to monitor protesters have extraordinary spying tools beyond those flying machines. Forbes has previously detailed the millions of dollars ICE and CBP has spent on smartphone hacking technology from companies like Grayshift and Cellebrite. Federal agencies have also flexed the power to compel the likes of Google to supply information on smartphones using the tech giant’s services within a geofenced zone. And they have repeatedly forced suspects to unlock their phones with faces and fingerprints via recognition tech like Apple’s Face ID. If Trump comes good on his promise to flex the military’s power to tackle protests, expect even more powerful surveillance tech to be monitoring Americans expressing their first amendment rights.
There are all manner of guides to protecting protesters’ digital lives. Before you head out to voice your support, try the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense.
Update: This article was updated on June 3 at 7.45pm ET to add clarity on the person detection features in Skydio tech, and to add more clarity that there’s no evidence to suggest its tech has been put to use on protesters.
Update 2: After publication, Skydio provided a statement on the article. A spokesperson said: “Skydio aims to achieve the transformative potential of drones to benefit our lives and our society. Consumers use Skydio drones to capture stunning videos of their adventures. Commercial enterprises rely on Skydio to conduct safety-critical inspections of bridges and power plants, protecting workers from harm, and keeping our infrastructure running.
“We believe drones hold the promise of enormous positive impact with public safety agencies. The ability of firefighters, emergency medical providers, and police to obtain real-time situational awareness in dangerous scenarios results in improved decision making, greater accountability, and greater leadership involvement in events as they unfold. There are already many examples of drones saving lives in search and rescue missions. Drones have also delivered critical information that allowed first responders to de-escalate a situation (for example determining a suspect was holding a cigarette lighter rather than a gun). Similar to body cameras, the video record from drones helps drive accountability.
“At the same time, we recognize that drone technology, like other forms of technology, can be misused. Skydio is firmly committed to developing drone technology, and the rules that govern the use of drones, in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties.
“That commitment shapes everything we do. In our work with government customers, Skydio highlights and promotes the bedrock obligation to uphold civil liberties - including the First Amendment freedom to peaceably assemble and petition for change. Further, Skydio drones do not have facial recognition technology.
“In these tumultuous times, Skydio supports those demonstrating for justice and equality, and we condemn anyone - uniformed, elected, or otherwise - who seeks to bring them harm. We are committed to developing technology in a responsible manner that advances both safety and liberty.”
Update 3: This article was updated on June 5 2020 to reflect the fact that Durant’s investment was passive.