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Oregon Lawmakers Demand Answers On Use Of Surveillance Plane During Protest

<p>Early in protests against police brutality, demonstrators broke the window of downtown Portland's Apple Store. Now, instead of a wall of glass that looks in on high-tech gadgets, the store is lined with plywood that has been turned into an impromptu memorial for George Floyd, and a tribute to the quest for racial equality. June 14, 2020.</p>

Courtney Sherwood

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Early in protests against police brutality, demonstrators broke the window of downtown Portland's Apple Store. Now, instead of a wall of glass that looks in on high-tech gadgets, the store is lined with plywood that has been turned into an impromptu memorial for George Floyd, and a tribute to the quest for racial equality. June 14, 2020.

Five Democratic members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding answers from the U.S. Marshals Service about its reported use of a surveillance airplane during a protest in Portland on June 13.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader, said they were concerned about media reports of the aircraft circling the protest, which thousands attended.

"The aircraft that flew over Portland is registered to a company that journalists identified in 2017 as a front company for the [U.S. Marshals Service]," the Congressional delegation wrote to the agency's director. "Media reports have previously revealed that the USMS operates a fleet of surveillance aircraft equipped with cellphone surveillance technology capable of secretly gathering information from tens of thousands of phones below."

The tail number on the single prop Cessna Caravan is registered to Early Detection Alarm Systems. A 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation found the company was registered to a UPS Store in Texas. A document indicated the company was a front for the U.S. Marshals Service.

The last flight available for an aircraft with tail number N1789M — the same that flew over Portland — shows a position flight from Maryland to Atlanta on the afternoon of June 16.

An official with the U.S. Marshals Service didn't immediately return a request for comment on the letter and its implications.

Members of the Congressional delegation said in their letter the aircraft's cell-site simulator was originally made for the intelligence and military to use overseas. 

"This technology beams tracking signals, indiscriminately, into the homes of innocent Americans, to scoop up data from their phones," the Congressional delegation's letter states. The lawmakers added that the surveillance technology can track phones, identify all phones in the area and intercept calls and texts.

The letter asks who authorized the use of a front to register the aircraft, information on the types of surveillance equipment that were used and what happened to the data that was collected.

The members of Congress say they want a response by July 17.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting