Notice any planes circling above your neighborhood lately? Don’t worry, they’re probably just FBI spy planes.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the FBI has been flying surveillance planes, registered to fake companies, over several U.S. cities. In one month-long period, the AP said, the federal agency sent planes carrying surveillance devices across 11 states, covering 30 urban areas. Those cities include Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Boston, Baltimore, Anaheim, and others in northern Virginia.
The agency stressed that the planes were part of ongoing investigations, rather than mass surveillance operations. FBI spokesman Christopher Allen told the AP in a statement that the spy planes are old news: “The FBI’s aviation program is not secret… specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operation security purposes.” But, the AP says, the particulars of these missions are under wraps.
Over the past decade here have been at least 115 planes—and they look alarming. The AP describes:
Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods… one of the planes, photographed in flight last week by the AP in northern Virginia, bristled with unusual antennas under its fuselage and a camera on its left side.
That makes sense, because they are alarming:
The planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions… Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they're not making a call or in public.
To operate these mystery planes, the FBI created fake companies, many of which are associated with a man referred to as Robert Lindley. These documents, obtained and annotated by the Associated Press, detail information about one of the fronts, including one called NG Research:
NG Research was linked to one of the planes seen circling above Baltimore last month, and which the Washington Post reported as part of an effort by local and federal officials to keep an eye on Baltimore during riots following the death of Freddie Gray.
The planes used are mostly Cessna 182T Skylanes. Cessna recently decided to put the Cessna 182 back on the market, per Flying.
Guess they're seeing more demand from Mr. Lindley.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.