Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Those Magnificent G-Men in Their Flying Machines

(Optional mood music here.)

No need to worry that the TSA has been shockingly revealed as nothing but security theater, no need to fret over the slight delay in getting the hilariously-named USA Freedom Act passed to make cosmetic changes in the storage facilities used for your phone records and emails. The FBI has got all of you covered. Literally.

The AP reveals that the government, in what can only be described as paranoid overkill, has deployed a veritable domestic air force of low-flying planes to spy on you and your cell phone calls. To give themselves legal cover, the FBI has defined "you" as potential terrorists and enemies of the state.
The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period since late April, orbiting both major cities and rural areas. At least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were mentioned in a federal budget document from 2009.
For decades, the planes have provided support to FBI surveillance operations on the ground. But now the aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans' privacy.
Privacy? What's that?

The FBI assures us that these manned drones are not in the business of bulk collection or mass surveillance. After all, these are tiny planes, not Air Buses. Weight restrictions do apply, even though Fourth Amendment restrictions do not. As the Freedom Act implies, we are free to give up our privacy just as government and corporate spies are free to take it without the inconvenience of a warrant or other judicial approval.
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.
"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."
The front companies are used to protect the safety of the pilots, the agency said. That setup also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don't know they're being followed.
Yeah. If a suspect on the ground notices that an aircraft bears a cute corporate logo instead of the scary FBI seal, he will never in a million years suspect that the plane constantly circling and buzzing over his head is following him.
The FBI is not the only federal law enforcement agency to take such measures.
But Ma, everybody else is doing it! The DEA and the US Marshals have been flying spy planes for eons and nobody complained. So why the beef that the Homeland is operating a clandestine military air force against its own citizens? Wahhhhh.
In the FBI's case, one of its fake companies shares a post office box with the Justice Department, creating a link between the companies and the FBI through publicly available Federal Aviation Administration records.
Basic aspects of the FBI's program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department's inspector general, and the FBI also has been careful not to reveal its surveillance flights in court documents. The agency will not say how many planes are currently in its fleet.
Typical bureaucracy. They'll spend billions on designer airplanes but they're too cheap to fork over an extra twenty bucks for a separate post office box rental to keep us safely in the dark. And besides, maybe the reason the DOJ won't say how many planes are in its fleet is because they simply haven't bothered keeping count. Congress can't throw money at ironically-named "defense" agencies fast enough. If our lawmakers can't be bothered with counting, why should mere hirelings?
The planes are equipped with technology that can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over to prosecutions. 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.
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. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers and gets phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is used in only limited situations.
They are flying vacuum cleaners. They take off ostensibly to catch Suspect A "aspiring" to join Isis, and then they ever so coincidentally catch Suspect B engaging in a peaceful protest, or Politician C cheating on his wife at the No-tell Motel. All info is safely placed in storage facilities for future reference and use.
"These are not your grandparents' surveillance aircraft," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. Stanley said the flights are significant "if the federal government is maintaining a fleet of aircraft whose purpose is to circle over American cities, especially with the technology we know can be attached to those aircraft."
The Justice Department recently published a privacy policy for its agencies' use of drones and unmanned aircraft systems. But that policy does not apply to piloted aircraft. An FBI spokesman said the FBI's flights comply with agency rules.
Wow. And here I was thinking that my grandma's spy-plane was so buff, so cool. But anyway, as long as the FBI has invented secret rules for spying on me in secret, who am I to complain?
Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.
The rules devised by public servants are none of your damned business, Terrorist-Citizens!
Evolving technology can record higher-quality video from long distances, even at night, and can capture certain identifying information from cellphones using a device known as a "cell-site simulator" — or Stingray, to use one of the product's brand names. These can trick pinpointed cellphones into revealing identification numbers of subscribers, including those not suspected of a crime.
Leave it to those magnificent G-men to name their weapons of mass surveillance after a member of the shark family. They trust that all of you remember what happened to poor Steve Irwin. When you see that Cessna buzzing over your head you won't even have time to shriek "Crikey" before your private cell phone call is swept up into the fascist maw.
The FBI has recently begun obtaining court orders to use this technology. Previously, the Obama administration had been directing local authorities through secret agreements not to reveal their own use of the devices, even encouraging prosecutors to drop cases rather than disclose the technology's use in open court.
Obama is balancing his future financial security with your privacy. Ninety-nine parts his security to one part your privacy, that is.
 The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI's request because the companies' names — as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department — are listed on public documents and in government databases.
(Insert your own hysterical laughter soundtrack here. Or let's help the hapless FBI save the taxpayers some money by sending in our own name suggestions for new fake companies. I nominate Lindsey Graham Tours, LLC. That way, the chickenhawk of the Senate can hawk his fake presidential campaign at the same time the domestic air force fakes keeping us safe from above.)


Meredith NYC said...

Karen...."Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements." NYT, June.
2381 reader comments
What do you say about this continuing outrage undercutting US workers on and on?

Congress increases h1b foreign visas for the biggest corporations.
They arranged for jobs by the millions to be off shored to Asia.
Then arranged for corp profits to be off shored to foreign tax havens.

An entire system to deplete the US of jobs and decent wages and tax revenue. Seems congress is out to hurt people who elect them to office, then shares in the booty of excess profits in campaign donations.

All goes back to campaign finance, as usual---unique to America. What other country brings in so many tech workers from abroad for lower wages, even as they under fund their own schools and make college tuition a huge financial burden in their own country?

Why isn't this a big campaign issue for 2016? Sanders, please speak up. What will Hillary think up to say?

Pearl said...

I think Bernie Sanders has addressed this issue. I have also sent him an e-mail asking him to explain some of his support for decisions the Democratic Party has made regarding military and foreign affairs and how he stands on the issues when he makes speeches. I think Kat's concerns are valid about where his support is on various issues and which should be included in his talks with supporters.

Kat said...

Pearl, Thanks. I am not trying to rain on anyone's parade, I just wanted to point out that I don't think Bernie rejects American exceptionalism. Still, he deserves to be covered and not marginalized.
But, speaking of marginilization-- check this post out concerning Lincoln Chaffee:
does not note that Chaffee voted against authorization of military force in Iraq (the only Republican senator to do so. We know how Hillary voted.) Chaffee also uses the term "extrajudicial assassinations" when describing the drone program. I am not saying that Chaffee is someone to get behind (anyway, I've stated before I don't put much stock in presidential campaigns.) But I would say that Chaffees record is more mixed than you would garner from that post and that he is not just a (former Republican) social liberal.
As for the planes-- last summer we had a small plane circling constantly. We thought it was some sort of flight school plane, but was probably larger than they typically use for that. It was back briefly this spring.