The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a secret air force of light planes that conducts overhead surveillance for a wide range of law-enforcement matters in many, if not most, of the big cities in the United States.
That’s the bottom line from today’s big Associated Press report on the extent of activities of the FBI’s eyes in the sky. It’s a revelation that’s likely to feed the ongoing national debate about the extent of government snooping – including National Security Agency activities – and its implications for US citizens’ privacy.
It’s also possible this exposure will push changes in FBI procedures. Top US law-enforcement officials were already set on revealing more about agency use of one of the most powerful tools the airborne surveillance aircraft carry, secret cellphone tracking devices called “dirtboxes.”
The Justice Department has “launched a wide-ranging review into how law-enforcement agencies deploy the technology,” reported The Wall Street Journal’s Devlin Barrett last month.
Federal law-enforcement use of planes for surveillance per se hasn’t exactly been a secret. The Wall Street Journal and some independent reporters said last year that the US Marshall’s Service used Cessnas to snoop on criminal suspects' phone activity. The aircraft carry electronic devices that mimic the cellphone tower signature of a particular service provider, fooling phones on the ground into connecting with them and transmitting unique registration information. The devices, known as dirtboxes due to the initials of the Boeing subsidiary which produces them, generally collect cellphone location data. They don’t suck up the contents of calls themselves.
But AP journalists took this information and went further. They noticed suspicious looking small planes circling in slow, counterclockwise circles over US cities, and in particular over Baltimore during last month’s civil unrest. They began tracing tail numbers, identifying antennas and other equipment on the planes, and uncovering a trail of fake companies used to hide the government origin of the flights.
They discovered that the FBI had used surveillance planes in at least 30 US cities, covering 11 states, during a recent 30-day period. These aircraft appeared to carry high-quality video equipment for filming activity on the ground. Some could be outfitted with “dirtbox”-like cellphone attracting equipment, though the AP didn’t specify how many of the flights they tracked might have involved such surveillance.
The FBI asked the AP to not disclose the names of the secret firms, saying it would just cost tax money to reestablish such fronts to protect pilots and planes. The AP declined, saying that the firms were listed in government documents and public databases. At least one shared an address with a Justice Department office.
Most of the aircraft registrations included a mysterious name, Robert Lindley, according to the AP. He appeared to have at least three distinct signatures, according to registration documents reviewed by reporters. Another name on some of the documents, Robert Taylor, seemed to have been written in handwriting similar to that of one of the Lindley patterns.
The AP called people named “Lindley” in the D.C. area but at press time hadn’t turned up anything.
“The FBI would not say whether Lindley is a government employee,” wrote AP reporters Jack Gillum, Eileen Sullivan, and Eric Tucker.
Are the flights an abuse of law enforcement power? A senior law enforcement official quoted by CNN insisted that they were not. There is “rigorous oversight and approval” prior to use of such flights, said the official. But no judge or search warrant is involved in the process.
Whether law enforcement can obtain cellphone location data without a warrant is an issue that’s going to end up in the Supreme Court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A review of actual information obtained by police in a particular case shows that it’s easy to determine where a suspect worships, whom he sleeps with, and other highly specific aspects of travel and life, wrote ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in March.
“Records revealing these kinds of sensitive details of our lives are exactly what the Fourth Amendment was intended to protect,” according to Mr. Wessler.