Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Activists leak 600 hours of mostly Dallas police helicopter footage after city’s 22 terabyte loss of criminal case data

The leaked video shows the surveillance of people in their front yards, standing by their cars and sunbathing with no indication that they are being watched

DALLAS (CN) — Data transparency activists released a massive 600-hour leak of mostly Dallas Police Department helicopter footage, raising more questions about the city’s data security protocols three months after DPD admitted to a 22-terabyte deletion of case data that resulted in the release of criminal defendants awaiting trial.

Distributed Denial of Secrets — a WikiLeaks-like group known as DDoSecrets — posted over 1.8 terabytes of police helicopter footage on the group’s website late Friday. The majority of the footage appears to be from DPD and the rest from the Georgia State Patrol. Large sections of the video shows random surveillance of Dallas neighborhoods, with highly detailed and zoomed-in images of people in their front yards, standing by their cars and sunbathing. The subjects appear to have no indication they are under surveillance.

Another section of video shows what appears to be large crowds at the State Fair of Texas, with the helicopter camera switching in and out of infrared imaging as it pans the crowd.

Video footage from Atlanta show highly detailed thermal imaging of the exterior of Mercedes Benz Stadium during a football game before the camera zooms in on individuals walking outside the stadium.

Federal courts have traditionally held that journalists cannot be criminally prosecuted for publishing stolen or hacked material as long as the journalist is not involved in the theft. However, the stealing of computer data through hacking remains a federal crime.

Emma Best, a journalist and co-founder of DDoSecrets, said the group is unaware of the identity of the leak source and that the video was stored by the two agencies on unsecured cloud infrastructure.

“In some of the videos, they use infrared tech to look at people inside buildings with thinner walls,” she tweeted. “The video provides no justifying context.”

DPD declined to comment on the leak Sunday afternoon, punting on questions regarding the department’s data security and helicopter video retention policies until business hours on Monday.

The leak comes three months after Dallas County prosecutors admitted that DPD lost 22 terabytes of case data during a data migration in the spring, with only 14 terabytes being recoverable. City officials have faced intense criticism of the protocols in place that allowed a data loss of this size, as well as the delay in disclosure of the deletion to the public.

It remains unknown how many pending criminal cases are impacted by the data loss. Defendant Jonathan Pitts was released from Dallas County Jail Aug. 13 as he awaits trial for murder due to prosecutors not being ready for his trial that week due to the data loss. Nonetheless, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot has pledged that “justice will be served” in these cases in spite of the data lost.

DDoSecrets first made headlines in June 2020 when it leaked over two decades-worth of internal data from over 200 law enforcement agencies. Known as BlueLeaks, the 269 gigabytes includes email message, audio and video files and police and FBI intelligence reports dating back to 1996. Best said at the time the data was from an outside individual who sympathized with the nationwide protests against police brutality against unarmed black people. The data was allegedly obtained through a breach of Houston-based firm Netsential, which hosts portals for law enforcement agencies.

The fallout of the BlueLeaks leak included the suspension of the DDoSecrets Twitter account and the German government seizing a server hosting the files. German prosecutors confirmed the seizure came after requests by the U.S. government.

It is unknown what DPD policy for the retention of non-evidentiary helicopter video is. Dallas police keep non-evidentiary body camera video for 90 days, with the video being disclosed to the public only through public records requests or through undefined “criminal justice” requests.

Follow @davejourno
Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Government, Media, Technology

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.