As the controversy surrounding the upcoming Jade Helm military exercises has made abundantly clear, Americans are growing more distrustful of a federal government they perceive as being increasingly willing to infringe upon the civil liberties of US citizens. Fears that Washington is conducting clandestine activities aimed at gathering intelligence about the US populace and the notion that we are witnessing a creeping militarization of US cities has many Americans on edge and as the following story from the Washington Post makes clear, it’s not paranoia if they’re really watching you.
As Benjamin Shayne settled into his back yard to listen to the Orioles game on the radio Saturday night, he noticed a small plane looping low and tight over West Baltimore — almost exactly above where rioting had eruptedseveral days earlier, in the aftermath of the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.
The plane appeared to be a small Cessna, but little else was clear. The sun had already set, making traditional visual surveillance difficult. So, perplexed, Shayne tweeted: “Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?”
That was 9:14 p.m. Seven minutes later came a startling reply. One of Shayne’s nearly 600 followers tweeted back a screen shot of the Cessna 182T’s exact flight path and also the registered owner of the plane: NG Research, based in Bristow, Va.
As it turns out, Shayne had unwittingly uncovered a secret FBI overhead surveillance campaign carried out over Baltimore during the riots that set the city ablaze late last month. The operation involved two planes circling the city, and as WaPo notes, if equipped with the latest technology, the aircraft would have been capable of monitoring “dozens of city blocks” at a time. The revelations have prompted the ACLU to demand answers as to the legality of what an unnamed official calls FBI “aerial support”:
Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks — in some cases even square miles at a time — inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet. The ACLU plans to file information requests with federal agencies on Wednesday, officials said.
“A lot of these technologies sweep very, very broadly, and, at a minimum, the public should have a right to know what’s going on,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU specializing in privacy and technology issues.
A government official familiar with the operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters not approved for public release, said the flights were aerial support that Baltimore police officials requested from the FBI.
Flight records maintained by the Web site Flightradar24 show two Cessnas — one a propeller plane, the other a small jet — flying precise formations over the part of West Baltimore where the rioting had occurred. The smaller Cessna conducted flights in the area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, always after dark. The planes used infrared technology to monitor movements of people in the vicinity, the official said.
Last year, the Post outlined how Cessnas can be outfitted with technology "that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time." The camera setups the Post profiled are developed by Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS). Here's a schematic:
The company's Chief Technical Officer Ross McNutt told the Chicago Tribune that PSS was not involved in the Baltimore operation, noting that "the kinds of sensors used in most government surveillance flights can see at least a five-block-by-five-block area. What they need is a system that follows people back to the house they came out of."
Nevertheless, it's worth noting that these systems have been deployed over Baltimore before. Here's WaPo from last February:
Already, the cameras have been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, McNutt said. They’ve been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police.
If that's a little too ambiguous for you, have a look at the following slide from a company presentation delivered in January 2014 by the very same Ross McNutt:
Just what is this PSS 'eye' that the company swears was not 'in the sky' over Baltimore, you ask? A good place to start in terms of answering that question might be a product called the "NightHawk" which employs infrared technology that provides "wide area surveillance capability with persistent coverage of areas as large as 4 square kilometers."
The NightHawk "integrates seamlessly" with the company's HawkEye II wide area surveillance sensor which PSS markets to law enforcement with this rather compelling sales pitch:
Have a Crime Spike? Criminals on the run? Gang or Drug Networks you need to shut down? [ZH: Rioters burning down your city?] Do you have limited manpower and/or limited intelligence assets?
PSS can help - and fast.
Whether your objective is to monitor a single intersection, several city blocks, or a whole city, PSS's HawkEye II gives the capability and the flexibility to meet your mission requirements.
To get an idea of what the Hawkeye II is capable of in terms of both scope and detail, have a look at the following images from the portion of the company's webpage dedicated to its law enforcement customers:
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Besides the Baltimore Police Department, PSS has conducted operations in conjunction with police in Dayton, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, and while we can't say for sure whether Baltimore was indeed under the watchful eye of the PSS "NightHawk" last month, we think it's safe to say that if you want to watch those who may be watching you, PSS is a good company to keep an eye on.