Domestic Government Spy Program Jeopardizes Citizens’ Rights

Published July 16, 2015

Amateur “plane spotters”—hobbyists using radio equipment and visual observation to track and record air traffic above their neighborhood—discovered a fleet of small airplanes owned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Department of Justice operating as aerial government surveillance platforms in Baltimore, Northern Virginia, Los Angeles, and in other regions.

Airplanes fitted for the aerial surveillance program were spotted circling the skies in Baltimore during widespread street demonstrations in April. In addition to visual and infrared cameras, these spy planes can be equipped with electronic surveillance equipment for capturing and logging mobile phone data.

Enabling ‘Mass Surveillance’

What once might have been considered science fiction is now reality, says Hanni Fakhoury, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“In the 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled people don’t have an expectation of privacy from overhead visual aerial surveillance, but [it] reserved the right to consider situations in the future where airplanes were equipped with other sophisticated equipment, like cameras, that would enable mass surveillance,” Fakhoury said.

“With this program, it appears that time has come,” Fakhoury said. “The fact these planes are equipped with powerful technologies like precise cameras or [international mobile subscriber identity] catchers requires a reexamination of those earlier cases.”

Fakhoury says more safeguards on citizens’ right to privacy are needed to compensate for advances in technology.

“We think a warrant should be required for this kind of surveillance, as well as sensible-use guidelines, so that this form of aerial surveillance isn’t targeted toward low-income or minority communities or individuals engaging in First Amendment-protected activity,” Fakhoury said.

Misleading Judges

Adam Bates, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, says FBI’s private spy fleet proves current safeguards against government snooping are ineffective.

“It’s clear that the judges signing off on these orders might not understand exactly what they’re signing off on,” Bates said. “In some cases, they’re not being told that this device can suck up information on every cell phone within a few city blocks. They’re just being told [it’s] ‘electronic surveillance’ or a ‘confidential informant.'”

Likened to General Warrants

Bates says people should take the time to consider the consequences and implications of government surveillance programs.

“At some point, this becomes a general warrant, which was one of the causes for the American Revolution and one of the causes for the Fourth Amendment to read the way it does,” Bates said. “This is very frightening, but I think it’s hard to get people stirred up about this.

“People have this attitude that ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, what difference does it really make?’ I think if people had a better understanding of the full breadth of what electronic devices are hanging out in the ether, they would be more appreciative of the danger [to their liberties,]” Bates said.

Amelia Hamilton ([email protected]) writes from Traverse City, Michigan.

Internet Info

Priscilla J. Smith, et al., “When Machines are Watching: How Warrantless Use of GPS Surveillance Technology Violates the Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Searches,” Yale Law Journal: