New internal documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal that surveillance planes the agency flew over Baltimore and Ferguson during highly-publicized protests also operated thermal imaging equipment.
The documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union via Freedom of Information Act requests, outline how the bureau is using planes equipped with infrared and night vision cameras. They also reveal that the FBI retains the videos for an unspecified length of time.
The release of the documents comes just days after FBI Director James Comey confirmed to Congress that the agency flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore during the protests following the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
According to the FBI’s own flight logs, the agency flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 to May 3, comprising a total of 36.2 flight hours. The flights took place mostly at night and typically involved a Baltimore Police Department representative and an FBI agent. Evidence logs show that at least half the flights conducted video surveillance, and the FBI is apparently holding on to copies of these videos. Still other flights conducted “electronic surveillance,” but specific details were redacted.
Anti-Media has previously asked whether or not these planes might be employing the controversial “Stingray,” a cell site simulator surveillance tool . The devices are capable of gathering location, phone numbers, and in some cases, actual contents of conversations from nearby phones.
In September, a report from The North Star Post exposed the existence of a fleet of surveillance aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The planes fly over various locations within the United States, as well as across foreign destinations. The Post reported that photos of DEA planes appear to show stingray technology, or advanced imaging technology, attached to the body of the aircraft. This would confirm suspicions that these aircraft are outfitted with DRT cell site simulators, or “dirt boxes,” as they are known when installed in planes.
The existence of dirt boxes was first revealed in late 2014, when the Wall Street Journal revealed a cell-phone monitoring program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service using small planes. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with Stingrays. The dirt boxes are supposed to be used for criminal investigations, but the ACLU says they can collect data from tens of thousands of people on each flight. If the planes flying over Ferguson and Baltimore are using dirt boxes, that information is censored through the government’s redactions.
In June, Anti Media also reported on the existence of at least 100 surveillance planes operated by the FBI — planes managed by fake front companies rarely granted judicial approval for such actions. Some of these companies include FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, and PXW Services.
The new documents obtained by the ACLU show a Cessna propeller plane registered to another FBI front company, NG Research. Records from the Federal Aviation Administration show the FBI installed a Paravion Technology infrared camera mount and a FLIR Talon multi-sensor camera system on the exterior of the plane. The FLIR system includes a “thermal imager,” an optical camera, and a “laser illuminator” for recording at night.
“Now that we know the true power of these devices, it’s clear that the director of the FBI committed perjury of Congress,” says Sam Richards, the founder of the North Star Post and journalist who originally broke the surveillance planes story. “For Comey to ‘not believe’ the bureau needs warrants for such an intrusive technology is unacceptable.”
Though Comey and his bureau have no qualms about such warrantless, widespread surveillance, the ACLU challenged the agency’s notion.
As the organization wrote:
In its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the FBI takes the position that no Fourth Amendment protections apply to ‘aerial surveillance conducted from navigable airspace.’ While that is an accurate statement of Supreme Court precedent when it comes to visual observation and use of normal cameras from a plane, it fails to grapple with the effect of advances in surveillance technology. Use of infrared and night-vision camera technology changes the equation by raising the potential for invasions of privacy. The capabilities of the surveillance gear matter. If the infrared camera is capable of observing information about the inside of private homes and offices, for example, the Supreme Court has already explained that the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies.
It seems that citizens’ legal protections against the rapidly growing surveillance industry will depend on how much information is available. Without a proper understanding of what tools government agencies employ, the public and judicial authorities will remain ignorant and ripe for exploitation — all while the State continues its indiscriminate monitoring. If freedom is to survive the exponential growth of surveillance technology, the populace must invest both in education and in taking counter-measures to combat the prying eyes of Big Brother.
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