The FBI Is Watching Us From The Sky

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo.
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo.
An investigation by the Associated Press has confirmed the fears of many a conspiracy theorist: The FBI is indeed spying on people all over the country, using low-flying planes to collect video and cell phone evidence. Over the past 30 days, planes have been deployed over more than 30 cities in 11 states — and often, the FBI is flying them without a warrant.

The AP's reporting unveiled a widespread and frightening program that allows investigators to monitor Americans' activities and collect information without going through a judge, as well as intense secrecy about the searches. According to FBI spokespeople, the planes are used for specific investigations rather than general collection, but after two years of coverage about government spying, this latest report doesn't do anything to ease fears that the general public is being watched.

Civil liberties advocates have been concerned about the power of aerial surveillance and the possibility of collecting information about innocent bystanders while conducting an investigation. This question becomes only more pressing as drones gain popularity, and their use by public and private entities expands.

The FBI told the AP that it focuses its surveillance narrowly and does not collect information on people who are not targets of an investigation, but that it will give prosecutors any evidence a surveillance plane collects. The AP report clarifies that some of the planes have the technology to identify thousands of people on the ground through their cell phones.

It goes on to say that there have been rumors of secret surveillance planes operating in neighborhoods around the country since 2003. The Washington Post reported on suspicious-looking planes flying over Baltimore only a month ago.

A common response to concern over privacy rights is that you wouldn't be worried if you had nothing to hide. But, what if a surveillance plane flying over a private backyard caught footage of someone sunbathing topless, or changing inside her apartment, or legally using marijuana?

Without more information from the FBI about what tools it has and how it's using them, and without a meaningful way to ensure agents aren't abusing the access these tools give them, there's no way to know what is really being collected. Further, we can't be sure the technology is being deployed to further legitimate criminal investigations or simply as a shadowy way to monitor activists or the private lives of individuals.

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