FBI Director Finally Starts Answering Questions About Its Surveillance Flights Over US Cities

from the public-areas-still-public,-even-if-viewed-from-above dept

Suspicions confirmed (well, at least by the FBI…): the FBI has been flying its surveillance planes over cities, often at the behest of local law enforcement.

FBI Surveillance flights over Baltimore and Ferguson as residents of those cities engaged in civil disobedience against racially-motivated police violence were lawful and useful, bureau Director James Comey claimed Thursday.

Comey said that the missions were flown at the behest of local law enforcement in each case, as demonstrations raged against the killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray by city cops.
In cases where large-scale protests are probable, it's unsurprising that aerial surveillance will be in use. Comey pitches the FBI's secret surveillance flights as a public benefit, which, in these cases, it arguably is.
“If there is tremendous turbulence in a community, it’s useful to everybody—civilians and law enforcement—to have a view of what’s going on,” Comey said. “Where are the fires in this community? Where are people gathering? Where do people need help?” he went on.
What's more concerning are the FBI's other flights -- the ones it's not as eager to talk about. These flights were uncovered by journalists and hobbyists, who tracked the planes' bizarre flight patterns, as well as traced their ID numbers back to a plethora of shell companies the FBI created to hide the planes' purpose and origin.

To be clear, aerial surveillance rarely implicates Fourth Amendment concerns. In order to do so, planes/helicopters/drones have to fly at very low altitudes and disturb normal ground activities. At this point, the airborne surveillance becomes legally analogous to a breaching of the curtilage -- more or less a warrantless search.

Comey also answered questions from Senator John Conyers, who had concerns about observed FBI flights over his home state of Michigan. As Comey explained, the flights are simply standard operating procedure.
We use planes in our predicated investigations to conduct surveillance of people who are under investigation. We do not use planes for mass surveillance. And so the good folks in Michigan who saw a plane in the air, I think a lot of them had a chance to meet with my SAC (special agent in charge) out there, and have him explain: 'Look, this is what we do in criminal cases. It should make sense, if you understand how we use it in individual cases.' So we have a small number of airplanes — I actually wish we had more — that we use to follow people in places where it's hard to follow them on foot or in a car."
Even if lawful, the planes are still raising surveillance concerns. Targeted surveillance is one thing, but it's common knowledge that US government agencies are using airborne cell tower simulators. Much like the ground version (commonly known as Stingrays), these devices scoop cell phone connection data (which includes location info). Many can be configured to obtain communications as well. The FBI denies using any of its planes for "mass surveillance," but the agency possesses all of the necessary technology to deploy them in this fashion.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: fbi, ferguson, flights, james comey, privacy, stingray, surveillance

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 27 Oct 2015 @ 9:19pm

    The government who cried 'Terrorist!'

    We use planes in our predicated investigations to conduct surveillance of people who are under investigation. We do not use planes for mass surveillance.

    Yeah, I don't believe him.

    He might be telling the truth, they might be using the planes for just what they say they are and nothing more, but the government has been caught in lie, after lie, after lie just in the past few years alone with regards to surveillance, that at this point the default assumption should be that if they can, they are. Can the planes be used in that fashion? If so, then it should be assumed that they are being used in that fashion, unless sufficient evidence is presented otherwise by an unbiased third party. At this point the government can be trusted to lie, and that's about as far as the 'trust' goes.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Discord

Introducing the new Techdirt Insider Chat, now hosted on Discord. If you are an Insider with a membership that includes the chat feature and have not yet been invited to join us on Discord, please reach out here.

Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

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