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FBI behind surveillance

Updated: 2015-06-03 07:41
By Associated Press in Washington (China Daily)

Aircraft registered to fictitious companies carry technology to monitor phone calls

 FBI behind surveillance

A small plane, flying near Manassas Regional Airport in Manassas, Virginia, on May 26, is one in a fleet of surveillance aircraft used by the FBI. Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the United States carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology - all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

The planes' surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states, an AP review found.

Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence investigations. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.

The FBI confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the US Justice Department's inspector general.

"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. "Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes."

Allen added that the FBI's planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance", such as those that had been permitted under provisions of the USA Patriot Act from 2001 until the authorization expired earlier this week.

The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.

Aerial support

The FBI said it also occasionally helps local police with aerial support, such as during the recent disturbance in Baltimore that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody. Those types of requests are reviewed by senior FBI officials.

Details about the flights come as the Justice Department seeks to navigate privacy concerns arising from aerial surveillance by unmanned aircraft, or drones.

US President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance, and has called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified programs.

After The Washington Post revealed flights by two planes circling over Baltimore in early May, the AP began analyzing detailed flight data and aircraft-ownership registrations that shared similar addresses and flight patterns.

Most flight patterns occurred in counterclockwise orbits up to several kilometers wide and roughly 1.6 kilmoters above the ground at slow speeds. A 2003 newsletter from FLIR Systems, which makes camera technology seen on the planes, described flying slowly in left-handed patterns.

Recently, independent journalists and websites have cited companies traced to a bank of Virginia post office boxes, including one shared with the Justice Department. The AP analyzed similar data since early May, while also drawing upon aircraft registration documents, business records and interviews with US officials to understand the scope of the operations.

At least 13 front companies that AP identified being actively used by the FBI are registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia, which is near a regional airport used for private and charter flights. Only one of them appears in state business records.

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