AP Uncovers More Than 100 FBI Spy Plane Flights, Originating From Shell Companies Located In Virginia

from the if-nothing-else,-FBI-lacks-the-imagination-of-the-NSA-when-naming-things dept

It's not just the US Marshals Service flying spy planes over the US, loaded with cameras and/or cell tower spoofers. The flying "dirtboxes" of the Marshals came to light last year, and were swiftly neither confirmed nor denied by DOJ spokespeople, who also noted the flights that may/may not be happening are all perfectly lawful and very much not the now-(temporarily)-expired Section 215 program. (I am not making that last part up.)

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that another DOJ agency -- the FBI -- is doing the same thing.

The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

The planes' surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don't know they're being watched by the FBI.

In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.
The AP investigation tracked down documents relating to the FBI's fleet of spy planes, ones that hide the FBI's aircraft behind corporate registrations (i.e., not as easily traceable to the US government) and a variety of three-letter shell companies.

Here's a screenshot of Cessna single-engine planes registered in the Bristow, VA area. (Bristow seems to be the "home" of federal spy planes.)


If this was just one name in a long listing, there would be nothing suspicious about it. But in a single page of search results, the following nonexistent companies can be found, all of them containing no more ownership information than a PO Box:
OTV Leasing
OBR Leasing
PXW Services
KQM Aviation
LCB Leasing
NBR Aviation
FVX Research
RKT Productions
NBY Productions
PSL Surveys
NG Research (an exception!)
A plane registered to PXW Services was spotted flying over Minneapolis, MN. The FBI may be able to hide its planes behind obviously phony companies, but it can't keep its flight data secret. The flights show obvious surveillance patterns, rather than giving any appearance of "normal" behavior.


Despite the secrecy of the shell companies and the FBI's hesitance to discuss its spy tech, the agency claims this is not a secret.
"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."
Except that mounting a camera on the plane (as seen on the FBI plane pictured in this article) or utilizing an airborne Stingray device provides the FBI the opportunity to do both.

And, as usual, the FBI notes that all of its operations are perfectly lawful, even if the public can't actually verify for itself that this assertion is true.
The surveillance flights comply with agency rules, an FBI spokesman said. Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.
Then there's this:
The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI's request because the companies' names — as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department — are listed on public documents and in government databases.
The fake companies used by the FBI can be "uncovered" through a simple Google search, which is how I arrived at the FAA's listings late last week, before the AP's story broke. (The line about the "expense" of dreaming up wholly-unimaginative "business" names and renting another block of PO Boxes is far too cute, though.) Sure, there's nothing explicitly linking the two (until now), but if the public can be watched in public areas, so too can the FBI's flights. All of this originated from tail numbers of planes seen circling overhead, the flight patterns of those planes and querying publicly-available databases. What's good for the FBI (no expectation of privacy in public areas) is good for the public. The FBI shouldn't be asking journalists to withhold publicly-available information, especially considering the only conceivable purpose it serves is to deprive the AP of evidence for its assertions.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:49am

    so I guess the FBI wouldn't mind if a citizen circled their buildings with a drone and a few stingrays attached. Fair is fair right? I mean it complies with the citizen rules that were just created and promptly redacted which only we can see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      mcinsand, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:29pm

      surveys and taking photos

      I remember enjoying walking around and taking pictures of whatever I passed. Things really have changed. I'd be afraid to do that now out of fear for having gear siezed, cavities searched, and more reminders that our Constitution has lost any value.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 6:37pm

      Re:

      so I guess the FBI wouldn't mind if a citizen circled their buildings with a drone and a few stingrays attached.

      Yeah, sure. Try lieing to a federal officer. They can lie. You can't. Cf. Dennis Hastert.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:00pm

    Expect such publicly available information soon to no longer be publicly available, and taking with it lots of publicly valuable non-enforcement-related information.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:19pm

    Not terribly bright...

    There would be a really easy way to keep this information from being exposed. All they would have to do is create actual legitimate aviation companies that offer aerial photography services to the public as a cover to their operations where the planes are used to fly their missions as well as some for the public. Fly enough for the public that no one suspects the company is a front for the FBI and the rest of the flights aren't questioned.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DogBreath, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:36pm

      Re: Not terribly bright...

      Soon to be in the air: Google Planes

      Mission Statement: We are really only taking close up pictures of buildings for our 3D version of Google Maps (Note: please ignore the planes that continuously circle in one spot, as they must have had the sun in their eyes, or ran out of film and had to change the canisters, or used the wrong ISO, or pitched when they should have yawed, or fell asleep, or anything else but definitely not a government mission).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:40pm

        Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

        Not what I said. Not contract existing companies. Instead of creating shell companies that do nothing, create companies that look like private companies that also do work for the public that supports their cover but are actually secretly fronts for their desired operations. Those companies could even make a profit in the market place.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          DogBreath, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:56pm

          Re: Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

          But if they do it through an already well known and established company, no one would even give them a second glance.

          The best hiding place is in plain sight.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:20pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

            Except an established company would have reasons to ask questions and have more power to potentially expose them.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:26pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

            ...already well known and established company, no one would even give them a second glance...

            Assuming said known and established company(ies) could obtain the required security clearance(s) AND sign some serious non-disclosure agreements.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 5:45pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

              "Assuming said known and established company(ies) could obtain the required security clearance(s) AND sign some serious non-disclosure agreements."

              You mean like AT&T?

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 6:48pm

          Re: Re: Re: Not terribly bright...

          I think you're making the common mistake of assuming they give a rat's ass what you or we think. They don't need this to be secret. It's just more convenient for them if it takes the like of AP or Tim to drag it out into the open.

          Somebody needs to come up with an analog to that "minutes until nuclear winter" clock the atomic scientists have. Minutes until "1984" is in place and functioning; I put it at five, now that Congress let Sec. 215 lapse. It's heartening, but we're not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:46pm

      Re: Not terribly bright...

      >All they would have to do is create actual legitimate aviation companies

      Luckily there are already private companies that engage in public aerial surveillance and are more than willing to have USG as a client!

      http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/07/a-tivo-for-crime-how-always-recording-airborne-cam eras-watch-entire-cities/

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      That One Other Not So Random Guy, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:44pm

      Re: Not terribly bright...

      That actually involves work.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:21pm

    Allen added that the FBI's planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance."

    In other words the planes do not spy on everybody in the world all of the time, just a lot of people in a local area some of the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DogBreath, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:50pm

      Re:

      Do I smell a Mickey Mouse citizen spying law coming down the pike (much like the Mickey Mouse copyright act)?

      SCOTUS: The judgment stands that it is ok to spy on U.S. Citizens through private third-parties, and violate same U.S. Citizens Constitutions Rights, as long as it is done only for "limited times".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DogBreath, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:25pm

    You've spoiled the suprise...

    The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.

    This is the stupidest statement ever, as the fact that everyone can hear their stupid planes circling overhead, and complain all the way up the chain until it even hits local news stations who can't get any answers either.

    This has been going on for years all across the country:

    http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2009/07/392941.shtml

    http://www.reddit.com/r/nova/comments/2 bgj1p/plane_circling_over_mcleanlangley_area_last_few/

    http://chpn.net/news/2009/09/08/why-is-that-pl ane-circling_9063/

    http://claycord.com/2013/06/26/mysterious-plane-circling-around-claycord/

    http://ww w.highstrangeness.tv/0-993-mystery-planes-continue-to-circle.html

    http://www.news10.net/story/news/lo cal/sacramento-central/2014/03/18/mysterious-plane-circles-sacramento/6591669/


    Plus, by using (allegedly) private companies, any metadata they collect was freely given to the (allegedly) third-party aircraft operating as cell tower spoofers, and as we all know any data given to a third party freely has no right to privacy collection from the government (at least according to them).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 7:01pm

      Re: You've spoiled the suprise...

      ... any metadata they collect was freely given to the (allegedly) third-party aircraft operating as cell tower spoofers, and as we all know any data given to a third party freely has no right to privacy collection from the government (at least according to them).

      We don't yet really understand what Stingrays really can do. We know they force any phone which connects to them into 2G mode which is hackable.

      Are they also hoovering off all the logs and metadata, personally identifying information, messages sent or received, and GPS data? We don't know 'cause they aren't talking. They leave it to us to speculate. I expect the worst, and hope for the best.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:46pm

    "A secret?! Who said it's a secret? We just prefer we don't talk about it and we'll redact 98% of the documents we'll release about it. But it's definitely not a SECRET!"

    - FBI

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:06pm

    Sometimes I'm starting to think that the US is actually deeply afraid, of an enemy within, that is not the american citizenry, but that particular small nation by the Mediterranean near fields of death and war who are blackmailing America as a whole cos if not, they'll go full Samson.

    The tormented emulating their tormentors and becoming even more cynically evil than them is a story as old as world itself, isn't it.

    It's the only reason sometimes to me that would explain all the extreme spying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:10pm

    ...did the Feebs get their naming protocol from spammers and scammers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:12pm

    FCC License

    The FCC License for the use of the devices say that they are only for use in emergencies. Unless there have been thousands of emergencies per day that are going unreported, someone needs to recall all of these due to abuse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Beech, 2 Jun 2015 @ 1:36pm

    Semantic Error.

    "And, as usual, the FBI notes that all of its operations are perfectly lawful"

    Actually, based on your next block quote, that's NOT what they said. They said that the flights "comply with agency rules." So, whether the agency rules are lawful is the real question here, and it's really anyone's guess.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    dfed (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:07pm

    Thanks, USG, for making all the fucking creepy lunatics from the 90s into soothsayers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:26pm

      Re:

      Reminds me of a complaint about the spying and its subsequent revelations damaging therapy of paranoid schizophrenics because it confirmed their fears and lent credibility to persacuratory delusions. Beyond the realm of possibility even if the most pessimistic assumptions about government programs are taken as true.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DogBreath, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:16pm

      Re:

      Thanks, USG, for making all the fucking creepy lunatics from the 90s into soothsayers.

      Hey now, you leave Mel Gibson out of this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:33pm

    Simple question

    A simple question to think about, based upon the flight data map above: How many foreign terrorists were the FBI watching in Minneapolis?

    After you've thought about it for a while, those of you worried about foreign terrorists, it might occur to you that the FBI seems to spend a lot of time watching United States citizens and not much time at all watching foreign terrorists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:21pm

      Re: Simple question

      if you do not trust your government 100% blindly you are considered a terrorist these days

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 5:55pm

      Re: Simple question

      Because it's US citizens that most terrify the FBI.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 7:18pm

      Re: Simple question

      ... those of you worried about foreign terrorists, it might occur to you that the FBI seems to spend a lot of time watching United States citizens and not much time at all watching foreign terrorists.

      Psst: "Drug War".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:46pm

    Interestingly, these planes appear to have been in operation back to 2013. There is a forum posting describing these planes dated May 11, 2013:

    https://archive.4plebs.org/x/thread/12605102/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:47pm

    Where's dem tinfoil hats now? Funny how things like these are completly normal these days while a few years ago they were funny illusions of crazy people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:19pm

    So its an open secret that the agencies dedicated to protecting americans are breaking the laws and making people less safe and yet fuck all is done about it.

    maybe people will demand they be arrested or instead of waiting for someone else to do something about this, go and do it themselves before it gets to the point where police and other alphabet letter agencies start dragging people out of their homes for thought crimes against those in power.

    It's only a matter of time. This has happened so many times in history that it is pretty easy to see what will happen next.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    That One Other Not So Random Guy, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:38pm

    all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

    They stole that idea from the CIA drug smuggling.

    I wonder if there is a C&D letter from the CIA on the FBI's desk right now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 5:02pm

    Traditionally - when a security force starts setting up hidden forces like this - this type of situation would be described as the beginnings of a coup.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 7:28pm

      Re:

      ... this type of situation would be described as the beginnings of a coup.

      I suspect that coup happened around the time of Truman or FDR. What we're seeing now is their attempts to herd us into our designated holding pens. Moo. Baah.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sarcastic Fringehead, 2 Jun 2015 @ 7:55pm

    Can't be trusted, no secrets, ever

    The FBI should never be allowed to have any secrets from the US public. They've shown time & again they can't be trusted.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Bureau_of_Investigation
    is loaded with details, from WW2 to MLK to VietWar protesters...it just goes on like that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2015 @ 6:57pm

    The area they are circling is highly concentrated with Somalians. Unfortunately there has been a lot of concern about youth that have been influenced by ISIS in their community. I know a family friend who said the young man he was trying to help from Ethiopia felt torn because the mosque was preaching hate and mistrust of the white devils, while my friend had opened his house as safe place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer
Anonymous number for texting and calling from Hushed. $25 lifetime membership, use code TECHDIRT25
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.