The FBI admits to using low-flying aircraft to conduct surveillance over major American cities, raising new questions about the scale and purpose of domestic surveillance on law abiding citizens. Revealed by an Associated Press investigation, the planes’ surveillance equipment is often used without a judge’s approval. Surveillance planes, some registered under fake company names, were found to have made more than 100 flights in the last month over at least 11 states and major cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Houston.
The FBI insists the aircraft are “not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.” But the AP investigation found the planes can take video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that “could be handed over for prosecutions.” Additionally, some of the aircraft are equipped with Stingray technology that can identify and capture thousands of people’s cellphone data, even if the people are not in public. The agency’s domestic flying operations drew attention recently when its planes were caught flying over the Baltimore protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray. The flight was later tracked back to the FBI. “These are not your grandparents’ surveillance aircraft,” said the ACLU’s Jay Stanley, calling the flights 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.”