The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is flying small planes equipped with video and cellphone surveillance technology around the country and hiding their activities behind fictitious business fronts, the Associated Press revealed on Tuesday.
In its investigation, the AP found that the agency operated flights above more than 30 cities in 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, within a recent 30-day period—generally using surveillance equipment without a judge's approval. Some of those cities include Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, and Anaheim.
Further, the FBI used at least 13 fake companies to hide its activities, including FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services, the AP reports, adding, "Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department's inspector general."
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"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 say cellphone surveillance is rare, although the AP found in recent weeks FBI flights orbiting large, enclosed buildings for extended periods where aerial photography would be less effective than electronic signals collection. Those included above Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
FBI planes have been sporadically identified in recent months, with the Washington Post noting two flights circling Baltimore in early May. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice released guidelines that explicitly barred the agency from using the aircrafts to monitor activities protected by the First Amendment, such as peaceful protests, "or the lawful exercise of other rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
But as the AP points out in its report, a DOJ spokeswoman "said the policy applied only to unmanned aircraft systems rather than piloted airplanes."
"These are not your grandparents' surveillance aircraft," Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the AP.
The flights are significant "if the federal government is maintaining a fleet of aircraft whose purpose is to circle over American cities, especially with the technology we know can be attached to those aircraft," Stanley said.