Are social protests increasingly being surveilled by air?

Published by Brent Patterson on

Share This Page

Beechcraft King Air 350ER. Photo by Department of National Defence.

Are social protests increasingly being surveilled by the police and military by air? If so, what are the human rights implications?

Ottawa Citizen journalist David Pugliese reports: “Canadian special forces are preparing to receive their own King Air aircraft outfitted with surveillance equipment and have been conducting training leading up to the delivery of those planes.”

Department of National Defence spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande says these three surveillance airplanes represent a new capability for the Canadian Armed Forces operations “at home and abroad.”

Pugliese further explains: “The modified small passenger planes are outfitted with surveillance equipment allowing for the interception of cellphone calls, radio transmissions and other communications. Electro-optical sensors would also allow crews onboard the aircraft to track the movement of individuals and vehicles on the ground.”

Specifically, the aircraft will be equipped with “three WESCAM MX-15D electro-optical and infrared imaging sensors” according to according to

The Globe and Mail has also reported the $247 million purchase – brokered by the US government – “will give the military new tools to snoop from the sky.”

Surveillance of social protests

The Ottawa Citizen article highlights: “Canadian special forces were operating [a U.S.-registered King Air aircraft] that flew over Ottawa during the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests in late January and February, this newspaper has confirmed.”

Black Lives Matter

Two years ago, surveillance aircraft also flew over the protests in Portland, Oregon against the police murder of George Floyd.

At that time, NBC affiliate KGW8 reported: “A small airplane registered to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security flew over protesters in downtown Portland on [July 22, 2020]. The Beechcraft Super King Air 350 made wide, counter-clockwise circles over demonstrators for almost three hours.”

That appears to be the same type of aircraft the Canadian military is buying.

The Intercept has also reported: “While anonymous federal agents have thrown protesters into unmarked vans and fired tear gas at Portland’s mayor in recent days, an Air Force surveillance plane designed to carry state-of-the-art sensors typically reserved for war zones has circled the Oregon city’s outskirts from above.”

In that case, the airplane was a Dornier Do-328 Cougar.

Senator Ron Wyden commented: “The Air Force should know better than to fly circles over American cities when armed federal troops are beating and gassing protesters below. Even if this was a test flight arranged months ago, the Air Force’s decision to continue as planned, rather than delaying the flight, raises serious questions about the judgement of the military leaders who approved the flight.”

Wet’suwet’en land defenders

In January 2020, Vice reported: “[RCMP Corporal Madonna] Saunderson confirmed that an RCMP aircraft ‘did conduct patrol over the area … as part of our commitment to monitor the situation.’ The admission came one day after a photo of what appeared to be an RCMP plane above a Wet’suwet’en camp made the rounds on social media.”

Photo: RCMP airplane seen flying over Wet’suwet’en territory, January 2020.

Stop Line 3 protests

There are also reports of helicopters, airplanes and drones used to surveil land defenders and water protectors opposed to the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.

In July 2021, Big Wind, a Northern Arapaho land defender, told The Intercept: “A DHS [Department of Homeland Security] helicopter flew over camp yesterday. You could tell it was intentional and it was to intimidate us and to surveil us.”

Unicorn Riot also reported on a Minnesota State Patrol Cirrus SR22 aircraft circling a Stop Line 3 protest outside the Governor’s residence in Saint Paul.

Significantly, it has also been widely reported that Calgary-based Enbridge, the company that built the Line 3 pipeline, set up a special fund to reimburse Minnesota police responding to pipeline protests. That could have included air surveillance.

National strike in Colombia

In November 2019, when the national strike mobilizations first began in Colombia, reported that the National Police would “deploy its entire fleet of Bell 407 Halcón surveillance helicopters in the main cities of the country, where the most important concentrations are expected to occur.”

Semana further noted: “The aircraft, normally, carries four policemen (two pilots) and sends the images it takes to the police command, in real time, so that they are implemented in chases, padlock operations and all kinds of operations.”

Colombian human rights defenders have repeatedly raised concerns about police violence during the national strike protests that extended into 2021.

In its 2013-14 annual report, the Canadian Commercial Corporation describes the delivery of “four Bell 407 helicopters to the Colombian National Police” as a “success story.”

We continue to follow this issue.

Share This Page
Categories: News Updates


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *