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, independent reporter Sam Richards and 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.
In a recent 30-day period, an AP review found that the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, plus the District of Columbia, mostly with a Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. The cities include parts of Baltimore, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, and Anaheim and San Diego in Southern California.
Published reports since at least 2003 show that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods.
The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.
The planes can capture video of criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.
Officials say cellphone surveillance is rare, but the planes can be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they are not making a call or in public.
Aircrafts have been found flying above Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
The FBI said the surveillance flights are not doing anything illegal and comply with agency rules that limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the reasons and length of time of the surveillance.
FBI spokesperson Christopher Allen has stated that they are not trying to hide anything from the public:
“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret. 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.”
However, the U.S. law enforcement has been covering up the use of the aircraft with at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.
Law enforcement officials said Justice Department lawyers approved the decision to create fictitious 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.
The government feels that aerial surveillance is important to investigate crime or terrorism, but the program raises questions about whether policies should be updated to protect U.S citizens’ privacy against government spying.
Some citizens feel like the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is being violated, which is in place to protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. However, others argue that they are not violating it because they are intercepting public, not private, airwaves and photographing in public, and the amendment does not restrict freedom to listen and look.