In the tense days following the recent riots in Baltimore, there was a lot of social media chatter about a couple of rather mysterious planes flying unusual patterns over troubled parts of the city. And it wasn’t just anxious conspiracy theorists writing about the two small aircraft — even The Washington Post published an article about the observations of a man named Benjamin Shayne and the revelations prompted by his tweet: “Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?”
What Shayne’s online rumination helped unveil was a previously secret, multi-day campaign of overhead surveillance by city and federal authorities during a period of historic political protest and unrest.
Discovery of the flights — which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI — has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used.
Now, following up on those reports about eyes-in-the-skies activity over Baltimore, the Associated Press (AP) has exposed a massive FBI airborne surveillance program that’s been, one might say, flying under the radar.
“The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.”
The AP investigative report notes that the FBI surveillance program using small planes loaded with sophisticated spy gear has been going on for more than a decade. In a way, according to the AP, this effort to gather visual and digital data is similar to the NSA’s recently blocked bulk collection of phone records without “probable cause” in the identification of a specific target.
Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.
The AP investigation also reveals that some of the dozens of FBI surveillance aircraft, operating behind some thirteen front companies, are capable of capturing the identities of an untold number of people on the ground below the planes’ flight path.
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“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.”
While the AP report pulls together a lot of information that many might find surprising about “big brother” on high, the FBI’s own website acknowledges the use of surveillance aircraft for its Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), such as that deployed for tracking potential criminal activity on the streets of Baltimore following the Freddie Gray riots.
“CIRG’s Surveillance and Aviation Section (SAS) provides modern jets and other aircraft that respond to crisis situations domestically and around the world. SAS can deploy aviation assets worldwide, including assignments in combat theaters.”
And in a post dated March 14, 2003, Fox News reported on FBI planes flying over the United States to “track suspected terrorists.”
The FBI has a fleet of aircraft, some equipped with night surveillance and eavesdropping equipment, flying America’s skies to track and collect intelligence on suspected terrorists and other criminals.
The FBI will not provide exact figures on the planes and helicopters, but more than 80 are in the skies. There are several planes, known as “Nightstalkers,” equipped with infrared devices that allow agents to track people and vehicles in the dark.
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