While Washington continues its dog-and-pony show about a clumsy telephone network dragnet designed to find needles in haystacks, people really concerned about the future of the republic should simply look up — at all these low-flying planes making deliberate left-handed circles around D.C. and dozens of other cities. The FBI has been filming us from above and intercepting our cell phone transmissions using a small air force hidden behind a set of fake company names, the Associated Press reported today.
In a fantastic bit of journalism, the Associated Press followed reports of two mysterious aircraft then went looking in public records for others like them — and found a fleet.
“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 said.
The planes can include specialized antenna and Stingray devices that emulate a cell phone tower and trick handsets into divulging information to the government, the AP said. The use of Stingrays by government agencies has been controversial, as until recently the devices were often deployed without a search warrant.
It’s easy to imagine situations where airplane surveillance can be a useful investigative tool. It’s also easy to imagine due process being followed to ensure that innocent Americans’ images and cell phone data aren’t sucked up by a data vacuum hovering above them. By hiding behind fake names, the FBI has pretty much ensured that public debate over due process for aircraft surveillance hasn’t take place. (The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names so taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill for the name changes that might come now; it refused.)
Let’s face it: flying over cities is a pretty hard way to conduct mass surveillance. Even with a fleet of 50 or so small planes, you’d imagine the data collection was fairly limited and agents calling in air support for investigations had to be judicious. So this story isn’t really about secret FBI planes. It is about due process however, and public debate, but most of all, it’s about surveillance from above.
Two years ago, FBI director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency had used unmanned aircraft — drones — to conduct surveillance in the U.S. At the time, he said drones were being used ” in a very, very minimal way, very seldom.” The FBI used that same language to describe its use of Stingray devices on the surveillance planes.
One week ago, the Justice Department released long-awaited guidelines about drone use that are steeped heavily in the language of Constitutional rights.
“The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures and generally requires law enforcement to seek a warrant in circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy,” the guidelines say. “Moreover, Department personnel may never use (drones) solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or the lawful exercise of other rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Just words, when FBI agents are making all the decisions and hiding behind fake company names.
The preservation of rights in America requires an earnest adversarial process. As I say whenever I get the chance, I want aggressive law enforcement agents; I want terrorism fighters to consider every trick in the book when trying to protect me. I want someone trying to investigate a murder to attempt to review every video camera and phone call available. That’s their job. But to make sure we don’t catch 10 innocent people in an effort to find one guilty party, we need an equally powerful force fighting on the other side. Civil liberties organizations, journalists, informed citizens. It’s supposed to be an arm wrestling match. That’s why secret air forces for the purpose of domestic data gathering alarm me, and they should alarm you. How can we arm-wrestling about air surveillance when it takes a chance spotting and dogged journalism to discover a surveillance program — not an individual sting operation, mind you, but an ongoing program — years after it’s been in place?
Or do you believe a five-page PDF document will protect you from a world where toy-like airplanes seem to be hovering everywhere, listening to us and watching us?