Surveillance Aircraft

At the beginning of June, the Associated Press broke a story about a fleet of small aircraft registered to fake companies that are being flown over U.S. cities on a regular basis. The planes were traced back to the FBI, which has been identified as running operations in at least 11 states using at least 50 aircraft, logging around 11 flights a month.The planes carry high resolution cameras that photograph continuously, and in some (rare) circumstances, an IMSI-catcher, which tracks all cell phones (in use or not) in the area visible to the aircraft as it flies (cell phones use line-of-sight frequencies, by and large).

When the story first broke, I wasn’t sure what to think. Having just read Nothing To Hide and Data and Goliath, privacy issues were fresh in my mind. Today, I got the chance to listen to a RadioLab episode called Eye in the Sky, about a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems which flies small aircraft over urban areas. The episode gives rare insight into not only how the technology works, but also how citizens (and reporters) respond to it when they grow to understand it.

The technology was tested in in Dayton, OH, and the test went well, demonstrating that the planes could be useful in fighting crime. The subsequent town hall meeting that was held to discuss the adoption of the technology did not go very well, however. Some citizens of Dayton were concerned about being watched all the time, everywhere they went. As a result of that meeting the police in Dayton did not adopt the technology, but may in the future. But the citizens got a voice, and there was a discussion.

It would be surprising if the FBI were not using technology that is largely identical to what Persistent Surveillance Systems uses, though probably more invasive, given their use of IMSI-catchers. The fact that there has been no public discussion of the use of the technology, and that the FBI has taken extensive measures to hide their use of the planes as tools of mass surveillance over United States cities is concerning. It seems reasonable to expect that the citizens of a democracy should have a say in how law enforcement operates, and should not be intentionally deceived by law enforcement agencies.

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, be sure to give the RadioLab episode a listen.