The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is operating a small fleet of spy planes equipped with advanced aerial surveillance technology, including a “Stingray” cell phone spying and tracking tool, as well as infrared and night-vision cameras, to monitor the activities of Americans all across the country. Apparently, the FBI is using more than a dozen fake companies to conduct its own surveillance operations, potentially violating the privacy of Americans who aren’t suspected of committing a crime.
In 2015, over a 30-day period since late April, the Associated Press traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights in 11 states orbiting both major cities and rural areas including parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and Southern California.
While the FBI argues that the front companies are used to protect the safety of the pilots and shield the identity of the aircraft, so that suspects on the ground don’t know they’re being followed, the fact that the aircraft are equipped with technology, which can identify thousands of people on the ground through the cell phones they carry – even if they’re not in public or making a call – the use of secretive aerial surveillance technology could produce a chilling effect on the Americans First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
According to government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 through May 3, 2015, adding up to more than 36 hours in the air. The ACLU is concerned that intelligence gathered by the FBI spy planes could lead to racial profiling of the protesters during large scale demonstrations and protests.
The FBI suggests the aerial surveillance is used for ongoing investigations, but accepts that it does deploy planes to follow terrorists, spies and criminals. In a statement issued in June 2015, FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano remarked:
“We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so. These aircraft are not equipped, designed, or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance, and are not routinely equipped with cell site simulators. With a court order, or under exigent circumstances such as a hostage situation, the aircraft can be fitted to include a cell site simulator. However, this is rarely utilized, and only with senior level approval.”
Even though the FBI tries hard to keep its spy planes a secret by using fake companies in the name of protecting the land and its free people, anyone can use a few readily available online tools to track FBI planes in real-time and know first-hand if the FBI is spying on you, or not.
Since there’s plenty of paperwork needed to fly a plane in the U.S., you can easily find a public record containing flight details for each spy plane flight on the Internet. John Wiseman, a technologist in Los Angeles, used these public records to identify flight routes and their real-time location by using a radio receiver he programmed to intercept airplane transmissions.
Brian Abelson, an engineer at Enigma, used the information about the FBI’s front companies revealed by the Associated Press, looked up the registration numbers associated with their planes, and created a database of 84 spy planes currently in use by the agency. So, you can also track the flight path of an FBI spy plane by entering their registration numbers on websites like FlightRadar24.Com and FlightAware.Com.