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How the FBI is using a ‘small air force’ to track suspects

According to the Associated Press, the FBI operates a fleet of undercover planes equipped with video cameras, some of which can also gather cell phone data. The FBI says these flights target suspected criminals, and that a warrant is not necessary in most cases. Gwen Ifill learns more from AP reporter Jack Gillum.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Even if Congress reined in government surveillance powers today, evidence of a different sort of privacy concerns surfaced, this time at the FBI.

    The Associated Press reported that the FBI operates a fleet of undercover planes shielded by fake company names that flew surveillance over at least 30 cities in 11 states during a 30-day period. They’re equipped with video cameras and sometimes equipment to gather cell phone area.

    The FBI says the flights target suspected criminals and that, in most cases, a warrant is not necessary.

    Jack Gillum is one of the reporters at the Associated Press on the story.

    Describe the secret fleet that you guys wrote about.

  • JACK GILLUM, Associated Press:

    Well, most often, if you were going to look up a tail number — that is the number that is emblazoned on the back of the plane — you might go to the FAA’s database of that aircraft. Sometimes, it might say it belongs to Jack Gillum or a corporation, maybe Google, Microsoft, a corporate jet of sorts, but all of these aircraft belong to these sort of strange-looking companies, M.G. Research being one of them, a mix of letters, sometimes the word research, sometimes other names, that all trace back to a bunch of P.O. Boxes.

    Now, this came to light after this aircraft was spotted and reported by The Washington Post in early May during some civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Now, what we found is we wanted to look and see, are there are more aircraft like this, and started digging through FAA records and other air flight radar patterns to see just the full scope of this operation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, let’s go back to this idea of dummy corporations. What’s the point of shielding the owners of these planes?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    The FBI says that when they want to do this sort of fictitious company, it’s that they don’t want to give criminals on the ground a heads-up that when they look at the sky above they’re going to see a plane that belongs to the FBI or to the U.S. government.

    They also say that they want to keep operational security. So if you have — if know that it’s an FBI plane, you know where it takes off and lands, you might be able to sabotage it. Now, that doesn’t really sit well in the minds of a lot of people for whom these planes are circling above overhead, and sometimes they get very concerned, even calling 911, asking who is this guy above my house and what is he doing?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What does the FBI say when they get these questions? What are — or what do they say to you that they’re looking for?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    Well, leading up into this report, until we spoke to some law enforcement officials, is that they had largely told in either reports, either in local news reports or when people had asked, they largely remained silent.

    The Federal Aviation Administration, which of course registers the planes, had also largely remained silent. In this case, U.S. government officials said that, no, we’re behind these, we set up these dummy corporations to keep secrecy, or at least to not let people know what these planes are, but indeed that the program is also not secret.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So this was one of those issues that was kind of hiding in plain sight. People saw these planes, they knew something was up, but the government never confirmed it until now?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    That’s right.

    And it was the volume of the flights that stood out to us. So we were able to look at lot of flight radar data going — following these flights from Seattle to Houston, Dallas to the Boston area. We were able to stitch the flights together initially by not just looking at these registrations back to these dummy companies in rural Virginia, but also the aircraft registration records, which had what appeared to be fictitious CEOs, one man signing his name at least three different ways across several of these companies that were set up.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I think the name was Robert Lindley. And, as far as you know, he doesn’t exist.

  • JACK GILLUM:

    Yes, right. And the FBI and the government generally says it would not confirm if he’s an employee.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, this doesn’t require a court, a judge. We were talking about the Patriot Act. That required a secret court to sign off on some of the surveillance. This doesn’t?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    Law enforcement officials will say that when you’re viewing somebody from the sky, there’s no Fourth Amendment protection here.

    The question really becomes, as technology evolves, is just how specific can a technology be? Ten years ago, 15 years ago, a pair of binoculars might have been all that does the trick. Now you have H.D. video. You can zoom in very closely. And the concern for civil libertarians and privacy advocates is if you’re up there and you’re recording this video and it gets more granular over time, what’s going to be used with that video, how it’s going to be stored, and can you rewind your life?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And it’s not just video. There is actual equipment attached to some of these planes that can track cell phones in a way — like from cell phone tower to cell phone tower?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    That’s right.

    And the FBI says that this practice is extremely rare, a rare occurrence. But this technology, which has been used in some criminal cases, tricks cell phones below into thinking that it’s a cell tower and coughs up some basic subscriber data, effectively allowing police, in this case the FBI, to know who’s down below.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    If you’re barbecuing in your backyard, and you have your cell phone in your pocket, it’s possible that there’s a plane that flies above your backyard who knows who you are and what you’re doing?

  • JACK GILLUM:

    If they are capturing that cell phone surveillance and they are able to tie that serial number to your cell phone to your name, they could probably do that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Or theoretically a terrorist could be caught the same way.

  • JACK GILLUM:

    At a barbecue possibly, too.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Possibly.

    Jack Gillum of the Associated Press, thank you.

  • JACK GILLUM:

    Thank you.

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