Surveillance by FBI's fleet of spy planes raises privacy questions

Surveillance by the FBI's fleet of spy planes, which are registered to shell companies and fitted with tech capable of sucking up cellphone data from innocent Americans, raises serious privacy questions.

How many are part of FBI's eye in the sky surveillance aircraft
Credit: flightradar24

That plane circling overhead might be one of the FBI’s surveillance aircraft fitted with tech equipment capable of tricking the cellphones below it into connecting to it – and not a legitimate cellphone tower – and then indiscriminately sucking up info of subscribers not suspected of any crime. Then again it might not.

In a 30-day period, The Associated Press “traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights in 11 states” plus the District of Columbia. Those planes have been flying over “parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and Southern California” as well rural areas. While you would expect the FBI to use aircraft in investigations, you might not expect those planes to be registered to shell companies. The AP traced FBI planes “to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.”

Although the FBI said its “aviation program is not a secret,” the agency tried the tactic of asking the AP not to mention the fake companies tied to the planes as it “would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.” The AP must have thought that request was funny and chose to ignore it because the information about the shell companies and their links to the Justice Department are listed “on public documents and in government databases.”

115 planes belonging to the FBI, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were mentioned in a 2009 budget document, but while investigating the Associated Press also discovered:

The planes are equipped with technology that can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over to prosecutions. One of the planes, photographed in flight last week by the AP in northern Virginia, bristled with unusual antennas under its fuselage and a camera on its left side.

Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they're not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers and gets phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is used in only limited situations.

“These are not your grandparents' surveillance aircraft,” said ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. He also explained that “surveillance turning inward” is just one spooky element about the FBI’s spy planes.

One trend we’ve seen in the last 15 years or so is a great “Turning Inward,” as US surveillance capabilities originally built to spy on the Soviet Union and other overseas targets have swung inward on the American people. The FBI has a spy plane fleet, hidden behind shell companies with three-letter names and headed by ghost CEOS with signatures that don’t match over time— it’s all very CIA. Yet these are American cities that they’re flying over.

After The Washington Post reported that surveillance planes fitted with infrared cameras to track people’s movements were flying over Baltimore, the AP discovered that some of those “FBI missions circled above at least 40,000 residents during a single flight over Anaheim, California.” The flight patterns were counter-clockwise and about one mile above the ground at slow speeds, which suggested to the AP that FLIR cameras were being used.

Earlier this month, the ACLU hit the FAA as well as the DOJ, FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals Service with Freedom of Information Act requests about the surveillance planes and flights over Baltimore. The DEA has “at least 92 planes registered to shell companies” and the U.S. Marshals Service use planes with tech capable of capturing data from thousands of other phones, too.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported the Marshals have been flying Cessna aircraft outfitted with dirtbox devices for seven years, “snagging a large number of innocent Americans” every time the feds hunt for criminals.

Dirtboxes work like Stingrays, which are in use by “over 46 agencies including law enforcement, the military, and intelligence agencies across 18 states and Washington D.C. for more than a decade.” A Stingray surveillance device lets law enforcement mimic a cell phone tower, track the position of users “who connect to it, and sometimes even intercept calls and Internet traffic, send fake texts, install spyware on a phone, and determine precise locations.” Dirtboxes can “sweep up identifying information about tens of thousands of cell phones in a single flight.”

The ACLU’s Stanley said:

Another mass surveillance technique that uses fixed-wing aircraft is known as “Wide-Area Surveillance.” This involves the installation of super-high, gigapixel resolution cameras on planes, which are then used to monitor entire cities. Every moving pedestrian and vehicle can be tracked: the beginning and end everyone’s journeys, and the route taken in between. This gives the authorities the power to press "rewind" on anybody's movements, and learn a lot of intrusive things about how they live their life.

The investigation by the Associated Press into the FBI’s use of surveillance aircraft does indeed raise questions “about how these surveillance flights affect Americans' privacy” even if the FBI has started obtaining court orders to use the tech. The agency’s use of cell-site simulators, aka dirtboxes or IMSI catchers, attached to aircraft is the creepiest part; the technology can track thousands of innocent Americans who did nothing to deserve having their privacy and civil liberty rights poked with a surveillance stick.

If the FBI is running targeted surveillance in legitimate investigations, then why collect the whole haystack when the agency is investigating one bad needle inside it?

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