In the wake of the violent protests, looting, and riots that shook Baltimore to its core and left parts of the city smoldering in late April, Benjamin Shayne — who had just sat down in his backyard to enjoy a radio broadcast of an Orioles game — inadvertently uncovered a secret FBI aerial surveillance program when he noticed a small plane circling overhead and asked Twitter if anyone could explain the aircraft’s low, circular flight pattern. As it turned out, one of Shayne’s followers had some answers:
That exchange would culminate in a Washington Post article which outlined the “aerial support” provided to the Baltimore Police Department by the FBI.
We went on to take a closer look and, in “Meet The FBI’s Secret Eye In The Sky Overseeing The Baltimore Riots”, we postulated that the Cessna’s monitoring the riots may have been equipped with night vision equipment provided by Persistent Surveillance Systems, a company which has worked with the Baltimore PD in the past. Here’s a schematic (via WaPo):
On the heels of the revelations, AP followed up and has much more on the FBI’s aerial surveillance program.
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 planes' surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don't know they're being watched by the FBI.
In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.
The FBI claims the program is "not secret" and does not aim to collect "mass surveillance", but as we discussed in depth in the article linked above (and as you can see from the graphic), it's difficult to believe that the equipment on the planes is powerful enough to be of use to the FBI but somehow not capable of the types of mass surveillance that the planes over Baltimore were capable of. More from AP:
"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. "Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes." Allen added that the FBI's planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance."
But the planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.
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 rare.
AP discovered the names of many of the shell companies the FBI has used to conduct the operation and in an ironic twist, the government asked the news agency not to reveal the names because then the Bureau would simply have to create new companies, a process which would cost taxpayers money. In other words: "if you reveal this information to taxpayers, it will cost them."
U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.
During the past few weeks, the AP tracked planes from the FBI's fleet on more than 100 flights over at least 11 states plus the District of Columbia, most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. These included parts of Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Southern California.
The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that 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 declined the FBI's request because the companies' names — as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department — are listed on public documents and in government databases.
At least 13 front companies that AP identified being actively used by the FBI are registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia, which is near a regional airport used for private and charter flights. Only one of them appears in state business records.
The moral of the story: if you're ever in your backyard relaxing and listening to a baseball game and happen to notice a Cessna making concentric circles overhead remember, it's not paranoia if they're really watching you.