As privacy advocates celebrated the expiration of the Patriot Act on Monday, the Associated Press broke another major story about domestic surveillance: the FBI is currently operating a mini air force made up of small, low-flying surveillance planes.
The aircrafts are equipped with cameras and sometimes more advanced surveillance technology that, “can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they’re not making a call or in public” (think StingRays). In most cases, the FBI has used this surveillance equipment without getting prior approval from a judge as U.S. law dictates.
The AP was able to confirm the existence of at least 50 small surveillance planes in the FBI’s fleet (though a 2009 budget document mentions at least 115 planes), and reports that these aircraft have carried out more than 100 flights since late April over “both major cities and rural areas.”
What’s more, the FBI has set up at least 13 fake companies as part of the operation. The agency’s surveillance planes are registered to non-existent companies like FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services to hide the fact that they are actually operated by the FBI.
Using P.O. Boxes, public records and other means, the AP was able to trace these companies back to the FBI, proving that they were in fact fronts for the agency’s domestic surveillance program.
When the AP informed the FBI of their intentions to publish the names of these fake companies, the FBI asked them not to. Their reasoning?
“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.”
Apparently, the FBI has had a domestic air fleet for some time now — the AP investigation suggests that the FBI has been operating surveillance planes within the U.S. for more than a decade:
“Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods.”
The FBI has done its best to downplay the AP report. FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said that the agency’s planes, “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance,” and that the use of advanced cellphone surveillance technology is rare.
In a statement, Allen even went so far as to claim that, “The FBI’s aviation program is not secret.” The AP refutes that claim, however, reporting that this is the first time U.S. law enforcement has confirmed the “wide-scale use” of surveillance planes within the United States.
The report comes just a week after the U.S. Justice Department released its first ever guidelines on domestic drone use.
Read the full report from the AP.