Mysterious surveillance flights traced to the FBI

Mysterious surveillance flights traced to the FBI
© AP

The FBI has been flying small planes with surveillance technology above dozens of cities in the United States, according to a review by The Associated Press.

The planes can capture video of scenes below, and some can house technology that mimics cellphone towers in order to trick phones into relaying their signal to them. That cell technology is rarely used, the FBI said.

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The AP notes details of the flights track closely with reports dating back more than a decade of mysterious, slow circling planes in cities that are part of a government surveillance program.

According to the report, the flights are used for specific ongoing investigations, and the FBI says they are not used for bulk collection. The government generally does not obtain warrants to record video of open spaces during the flights, but under a new policy, the FBI obtains court orders to use the cellphone technology.

The AP traced the planes back to at least 13 fake companies meant to conceal the government's involvement with the flights. The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the companies, but the news outlet declined since the names are listed in public documents.

"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen told the AP. "Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes."

The AP tracked more than 100 flights in the past few weeks over major cities like Boston, Chicago, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and parts of Southern California.

A document from 2010 cites at least 115 FBI planes used for surveillance, according to the report.  

The FBI sometimes uses the flights to assist with local law enforcement, like during the Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray. Reports tracked down a pair of planes that circled the city during that time.

At the time, the FBI confirmed to The Washington Post that it had provided aircraft for the city's police department for "aerial imagery of possible criminal activity." Those flights are what spurred the AP investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year on a program from the U.S. Marshals Service, another wing of the Justice Department, which used the cellphone technology to scoop up information dating back to 2007.