In what advocates say could be a case of religious profiling taken to new altitude, the FBI repeatedly flew a spy plane in the last week over Dearborn, Mich., a city with one of the highest populations of Muslims in the U.S.
First reported by the Detroit News, the plane flew in a tight circle Saturday and Sunday nights around the Detroit suburb, which has the highest percentage of Arab-American residents in the country, according to data from the flight-tracking website Flightradar24.com.
It's part of an FBI fleet of more than 50 small planes that are equipped with high-powered video cameras and, sometimes, cellphone tracking devices. The program, which was revealed by the Associated Press in June, has raised questions from civil rights advocates.
Like other planes operated by the FBI, the Cessna that buzzed over Dearborn is registered to a fake corporation, OTV Leasing. It circled the town more than a dozen times at an altitude of about one mile. The same plane also flew over other parts of the Detroit area in a total of seven flights since Friday, with a heavy concentration on Dearborn.
Locals leaders say it's only the latest example in a long record of religious profiling of Detroit's Muslim community by government officials. Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Fusion that he had filed a complaint with the House Judiciary Committee over the plane.
"We know the FBI has always had Dearborn surveilled and there's been profiling of Muslims, but the use of this plane appears to be an increase in the invasive nature of that surveillance," Walid said. "This is highly disturbing."
It's not clear what the plane was tracking or whether it was using cell phone surveillance technologies that let officials track the cell phone numbers of individuals below. FBI Special Agent Paul Abbate, the head of the agency's Detroit office, said in a statement to Fusion that "the FBI does not employ aviation assets to conduct mass surveillance nor to target specific communities." But he declined to address what the plane was doing in Dearborn.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions here," ACLU lawyer Nathan Wessler told Fusion. "It's one thing if it's someone sitting in these planes with a binoculars… and trailing a car at a crime scene. It's quite another thing if they're sweeping information of thousands of bystanders' cell phones."
A similar FBI plane circled over Baltimore during the riots and protests in late May. The planes are generally used to follow criminal and terrorist suspects, the agency has said in the past.
"I think that this should really scare the average American," Walid said. "Privacy rights are something that are essential to American rights and American values."
It's not the first allegation of religious or racial profiling of Dearborn Muslims. Leaked FBI documents published by the ACLU have shown agents targeting Michigan because of its high Muslim population. Several Dearborn residents filed a lawsuit in 2012 against border patrol agents who they say profiled them when they cross over from Canada to Detroit.
Walid said he hopes the House will make a formal inquiry into the FBI's use of spy planes. "We want to get answers," he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.