The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the U.S. carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, the Associated Press reports. The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval. The FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states. Aerial surveillance is a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. The program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.
U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. Basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department’s inspector general. “The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” The FBI said its planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.” The planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions. Some aircraft can 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 said that practice, which mimics cell towers and gets phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is rare.