CANNON BALL, N.D. — Surveillance planes fly low to the ground, and protesters staying in the camp can hear the loud whirring throughout the day and night. Floodlights set up by police on top of Native American burial grounds and lights from the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site in North Dakota keep the camp bright even in the middle of the night.
No one is sure if the airplanes are private surveillance hired by the Dakota Access Company or if they were sent by the federal government.
“That night Sunday, there was a gray plane with no lights and no markings that flew over this camp for hours,” said Angela Bibens, an attorney and volunteer with the Standing Rock legal collective. “Was it a DAPL plane? Was it law enforcement? I don’t know.”
Activists working against the DAPL are being subjected to heavy government surveillance, and frontline peaceful protesters have been targeted by police using military weaponry of questionable legality.
“I’ve been here since August, and I’ve witnessed the escalation of violence and the buildup of military force that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has engaged in,” Bibens said. “It’s alarming the way that we are surveyed. It’s nonstop. Sometimes we get a break at night, but then it starts up again at six o’clock in the morning. I think it’s really just to create some sort of fear and chaos.”
High-tech activists and volunteers are developing their own technologies to combat government-implemented cellphone jams and create a secure cellphone connection within the Standing Rock camps.
Despite the activists’ ingenuity, it is difficult to stop the Morton County Police Department’s use of less-than-lethal weapons on the front lines of peaceful demonstrations.
Protesters, otherwise known as water protectors, have been building a resistance to the construction of the $3.7 billion oil pipeline that is intended to run 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois.
They have met a number of different surveillance tactics — including four known surveillance planes that fly over the camp 24 hours a day, often with no lights on, which Bibens says is illegal — and brutalities in the 10-month struggle to stop the pipeline.
What people do know is the planes use a number of surveillance techniques, including infrared technology, which is used to tell exactly how many people are in each tent.
Lisha Sterling, executive director of Geeks Without Bounds and information technology coordinator at the Standing Rock camps, said there is strong evidence the government is using international mobile subscriber identity-catchers, commonly known as Stingray technology.
IMSI-catchers are devices used to set up fake cellphone towers to block cellphone signals and take the data from people’s phones.
Sterling said Freedom of Information Act requests have been made about whether IMSI-catchers are being used, and those FOIA requests were instantly denied on security grounds.
“The National Guard would neither confirm nor deny,” Sterling said. “The Morton County Police Department would neither confirm nor deny. The state police would neither confirm nor deny.”
The IT team used an application called an Android-IMSI-Catcher-Detector, which is used to detect IMSC-catchers.
“My AIMSCID database shows cell towers, which I’ve connected to for an hour or two hours, once while being at the camp, never before and never after,” Sterling said. “That database also shows the presence of cell towers inside of camp where there are no cell boosters, and there are clearly no cell towers there,”
Another tell-tale sign of the presence of Stingray technology is the very rapid draining of phone batteries, which many people staying at the camp complained about. In addition to taking data from cellphones, the IMSI-catchers also have the ability to insert malware into phones.
Terrence Daniels, a tech activist and founder of the group Support the Revolution, is in the process of developing a secure connection with other members of the volunteer IT team at Standing Rock.
“It’s not hidden that the police use jamming and recording at the camp and I can’t imagine very many rules that they haven’t broken,” Daniels said. “They have used every kind of jamming and surveillance that they could at this very moment. If you notice, they fly the planes over. It’s not like they are hiding that they are doing surveillance of us. That’s just one of the tools in 2016 that the police use. If you notice, they’ve got an LRAD (Long-Range Acoustic Device) machine sitting down there.”
LRAD machines are designed to be used in combat situations, according to Daniels.
“You’re using items which are going to ruin everybody who has been exposed to them,” Daniels said. “The LRAD device does permanent damage to their ears on unarmed American citizens. That’s just not logical.”
Although LRAD is typically used in combat situations, it was tested on water protectors at the standoff last Sunday night.
Volunteers quickly handed out ear plugs to protesters at the scene.
The standoff, which lasted from 4 p.m. Nov. 20, until almost noon Nov. 21, between police and peaceful protesters was one of the longest and most violent police responses to demonstrations of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
While protesters sang and prayed on a bridge, the Morton County Police Department used water cannons in subzero temperatures, shot rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, bean bags, pepper spray and concussion grenades into the crowd, and used the LRAD against protesters.
The weapons used resulted in 20 hospitalizations, including a woman whose arm was nearly blown off by a concussion grenade.
The violence Sunday night was unprecedented and horrifying, Bibens said.
“What I saw on Sunday appeared to be the kind of thing where they were just bringing out these military weapons to test them, to see what they could do, how people would respond,” Bibens said. “People were already cold, exposed, wet, hypothermic and then were battered with mace to the point where they lost bodily function and had vomited at the front lines. One person went into an epileptic seizure, one person, an elder, lost consciousness.”
Several hundred people were also injured, including IU senior Bradi Heaberlin, who was hit between the legs by an exploding tear gas canister while providing medical aid to water protectors who were pepper sprayed or were freezing after being soaked by the water cannons.
“At one point that night I went up with emergency blankets, normal blankets and also eye rinse to try to help people who had been exposed to water cannons and also to tear gas,” Heaberlin said.
“I had been in this process of running between makeshift medic stations and some of the people closer to the front who needed help when I stopped moving for a brief moment and very quickly saw a couple sparks and felt a huge force between my calves and didn’t know what had hit me, lost feeling in both legs and then felt an incredible amount of pain,” Heaberlin said.
Heaberlin is still recovering from the wounds that were inflicted when the tear gas canister exploded under her.
Many of those who were hospitalized were hospitalized due to the impact of rubber bullets.
“What I can tell you about rubber bullets is that they might not kill you,” Bibens said. “That doesn’t mean that they aren’t lethal. I can tell you from the injuries that have been perpetrated against water protectors that there is a certain risk of lethality, especially under conditions which we saw on Sunday. I don’t understand why the Morton County Police Department displayed such a disregard for the sanctity of human life. There was no real need for that. The propaganda which they put out from press conferences is appalling and full of lies — I can’t fathom why they continue to go unchecked.”
In the meantime, the legal collective at Standing Rock is filing two different lawsuits against the Morton County Police Department and is conducting its own investigation to bring accountability to the police.
“These are tactics used to exterminate people,” Bibens said. “They continue the cultural genocide, the environmental genocide, which is being perpetrated all to protect the interests of big oil and corporations that extract from the earth. We are beyond that kind of economy, and we need to move into a more sustainable economy that supports all life.”