Low-flying federal surveillance planes popping up over more cities

Low-flying federal surveillance planes popping up over more cities
Cessna 182 N859JA over McLean, VA in July 2014. (Image: liveandietpie via imgur!, Reddit)

Just a few weeks after similar activity was reported during the Baltimore riots, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune has a story about unmarked small planes flying low-altitude surveillance patterns, in the middle of the night, over downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America.

Aviation buff John Zimmerman was at a weekly gathering of neighbors Friday night when he noticed something peculiar: a small plane circling a route overhead that didn’t make sense to him.

It was dark, so a sightseeing flight didn’t make sense, and when Zimmerman pulled up more information on an aviation phone app he routinely checks, he had immediate concerns.

The plane’s flight path, recorded by the website flightradar24.com, would eventually show that it circled downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and Southdale Center at low altitude for hours starting at 10:30 p.m., slipping off radar just after 3 a.m.

“I thought, ‘Holy crap,’ ” said Zimmerman.

Bearing the call sign N361DB, the plane is one of three Cessna 182T Skylanes registered to LCB Leasing of Bristow, Va., according to FAA records. The Virginia secretary of state has no record of an LCB Leasing. Virtually no other information could be learned about the company.

Flight path of the Cessna over Minneapolis-St. Paul (via Star Tribune)
Flight path of the Cessna over Minneapolis-St. Paul (via Star Tribune)

The mysterious company in Bristow was the link connecting this flight to the flights over Baltimore in early May – and the FBI.  The Star Tribune explains:

Zimmerman’s curiosity might have ended there if it weren’t for something he heard from his aviation network recently: A plane registered to NG Research — also located in Bristow — that circled Baltimore for hours after recent violent protests there was in fact an FBI plane that’s part of a widespread but little known surveillance program, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Other Bristow-linked flights have been reported over Chicago and Boston, as well as in California.  The flights near Boston – over Quincy, MA – gained some notoriety because they occurred shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, when locals were especially skittish.  (Notably, an observer in northern Virginia also tied the Quincy and Baltimore flights together.  This observer had seen the same Cessna 182 that was observed in Baltimore, in May 2015, flying surveillance over McLean and Langley in the summer of 2014.  The observer saw a second plane in July 2014, which turned out to be the same aircraft that had operated over Quincy in 2013.)

The Star Tribune lists cases in which aviation-savvy observers have been able to dig deeper and identify the low-flying planes via the flightradar24.com website.  But there have been a number of similar reports in other areas where information about follow-up and identification is not readily available online.  (See here, here, here, here, and here, for starters.)

Cessna 182 N859JA over Quincy, MA in May 2013. (Image: Jennifer Azevedo-Andre via Boston Globe)
Cessna 182 N859JA over Quincy, MA in May 2013. (Image: Jennifer Azevedo-Andre via Boston Globe)

The reports of these observations appear to have mushroomed starting in 2009, although some civilian reporting traces back as far as 2004.  Police and sheriffs have invariably told citizens that they either don’t know who’s conducting the flights, or that the flights are under federal agency control and they know nothing more about it.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, have disclosed little.  So although one obvious assumption would be that the technology ramp-up was prompted by a provision of the Patriot Act, that isn’t confirmed.  And it’s unclear whether the Patriot Act is being cited as statutory authority, for what obviously looks like dragnet-type collection of information on the people.

The ACLU stepped in after the Baltimore flights were reported to try and get some answers.  The Washington Post reports:

Discovery of the [Baltimore] flights — which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI — has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have so far gotten little scrutiny from courts.

Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks — in some cases even square miles at a time — inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet. The ACLU plans to file information requests with federal agencies on Wednesday, officials said.

Washington Post graphic compares airframes seen over Baltimore in May 2015.
Washington Post graphic compares airframes seen over Baltimore in May 2015.

The planes flying at night use infrared (IR) sensors, as one would expect:

The planes used infrared technology to monitor movements of people in the vicinity, the official said.

The exact reach of the infrared technology is not clear. Civil libertarians have long warned that the ability to track the movements of individuals — even if their names are not initially known — can allow authorities to identify people, intruding on personal privacy and chilling the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association.

The military has used IR for years; since it works by discriminating among heat phenomena, its ability to track individuals on routine business in an urban setting may be of limited relevance to civil liberties, at least for now.

Once analysts have built up a database of observations, however, and can qualify patterns they didn’t know about before – ways in which heat differentials give them information – we’ll probably be surprised at what IR detections can tell them about us.  The ACLU is right to be concerned.

As WaPo points out, meanwhile, IR sensors aren’t the only electronic gadgets some of these shadowy federally-chartered planes are carrying.

The U.S. Marshals Service would be of particular concern because, as the Wall Street Journal reported in November, it has used cellphone-tracking devices called “IMSI catchers” in airplanes to track the movements of people in U.S. cities.

Reportedly, the FBI said it had used no such technology in the Baltimore flights, and the Marshals Service stated that it wasn’t flying in Baltimore at the time.

The WSJ article says that small Cessnas are typically used for the Marshals program.  And it’s not clear how well the “dirtbox” pod for the IMSI catcher can be distinguished visually from an IR or optical sensor pod mounted on one of the FBI Cessnas, especially for an observer at ground level.  So it’s probably not easy for non-experts to be certain what’s flying overhead, and which program it belongs to.

Wall Street Journal graphic shows how the airborne IMSI-catcher works.
Wall Street Journal graphic shows how the airborne IMSI-catcher works.

It does appear that the IMSI-catcher flights have started just in the last few years, based on the 2010 date of Boeing’s regulatory filing for the “dirtbox” – so named for its company of origin, Digital Receiver Technology Inc. or DRT (a subsidiary of Boeing).

The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phones.

The device can briefly interrupt calls on certain phones. Authorities have tried to minimize the potential for harm, including modifying the software to ensure the fake tower doesn’t interrupt anyone calling 911 for emergency help, one person familiar with the matter said. …

“DRT has developed a device that emulates a cellular base station to attract cellphones for a registration process even when they are not in use,’’ according to a 2010 regulatory filing Boeing made with the U.S. Commerce Department, which touted the device’s success in finding contraband cellphones smuggled in to prison inmates.

Of particular note about the IMSI catchers is that they’re not just passive surveillance devices.  They are designed to induce behavior from people’s phones.  Either passive surveillance or active channeling for surveillance purposes should require probable cause and an approval process, but more active technology carries an additional set of policy concerns, and potential rights issues.  Certainly it does so for the phones against which surveillance hasn’t been specifically authorized based on probable cause.

America is about due for a reckoning on what’s up with surveillance technology versus our constitutional rights.  The courts can’t decide this one.  Our old definitions just haven’t kept up with what technology can do now – and therefore, no one’s got a slam-dunk argument that our rights are either being infringed or protected.  This is a dangerous twilight zone for our rights.  We need new perspective and new decisions, rather than trying to fit every policy decision into the paradigm of 50-, 60, or 80-year-old technology.

That means this needs to be aired out in our legislatures, not only in Washington, D.C. but at the state level.  We need the same quality and scope of inquiry that gave us the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of the 1970s, if not something even more comprehensive.

This needs to be done soon, although unfortunately, the utility of crafting actual legislation will be limited while Obama is in office.  Still, the public debate must begin as soon as possible.  We’ve been accepting secrecy, unaccountability, and a hand-wave over our rights – while technology advances – for too long.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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