About Those Eyes in the Sky…

Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press
Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press

by Bill Tracy

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance planes reportedly have been buzzing over United States communities — for about two months now, in the case of Burke, Va. — flying in tight circular patterns for many hours of the day, every day, into the wee hours of the morning.

The Associated Press first broke the national story in June. It is interesting to note that the AP story cover photo was taken in Manassas:

WASHINGTON — Scores of low-flying planes circling American cities are part of a civilian air force operated by the FBI and obscured behind fictitious companies, The Associated Press has learned.

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.

Although shorter duration surveillance flights are occurring nation-wide, localities like Burke here in Northern Virginia have been targeted for “persistent” monitoring. Dearborn, Mich., location of the largest Muslim community in the nation, also is the site of these mysterious plane flights. Muslim community leaders in Dearborn are not happy about the surveillance. Burke residents here in Northern Virginia don’t seem to mind much.

I took the liberty of calling the office of U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Fairfax. Staff takes your name, commiserates, and tells you that the FBI will neither confirm or deny these flights (wink, wink). I was encouraged to put together a neighborhood petition, with multiple signatures, if I wanted to make a complaint that might be listened to.

Source: Bill Tracy
Surveillance plan flight pattern over Burke. Source: Bill Tracy

The aircraft are typically single-engine Cesnas flying one mile high, in counter-clockwise patterns that only Dunkin Donuts could fully appreciate. The planes are easy to see and hear, especially at night (plenty of flashing lights).

I’ve noticed some people breaking the law while the planes were in flight. During my daily jogs, for instance,  I have observed kids illegally crossing the CSX/VRE train tracks. If I could, I’d tell them their every move is being recorded: where they came from, and where they are going. The FBI no doubt is employing the same advanced military technology used in Iraq to find IED (Improvised Explosive Device) perpetrators.

Apparently, federal laws governing airplane surveillance are weak, giving the FBI wide legal latitude. Reportedly, the FBI is targeting specific crimes and is not violating any privacy rules currently on the books — although that may change if enough folks complain to elected officials.

If the FBI is wondering about my personal activities when out and about, I am looking for Monarch butterflies (saw one!) and at night, I’ve tried to capture a photograph of a Cesna crossing in front of the full moon. I am thinking the FBI is reading the draft of this blog before I even sent it off to Jim Bacon, for Pete’s sake.

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  1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    My family lives in Burke. We are middle eastern (although not muslim). I am ok with the FBI doing this. Don’t see the problem.

    1. Thank you for the comment. There are two concerns, privacy, which depends on the nature of the threat, but also just the noise during sleep hours is a pain. We have enough night noise issues in Burke without adding yet another nightly noise source. Thankfully FBI finally seems to have stopped the flights in the last 7 days (of course it has been cloudy, but I think they could be flying if they wanted to).

      When this was happening, we had no clue if this was temporary or rather some kind of new permanent monitoring of DC area. So I hear you but there seems to be a needed level of explanation.

  2. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    I get the complaints, but I’ve grown up in this area for 30 years. It is what it is, you don’t live in the capital of the world and not expect this kind of stuff. I remember plenty of noisy helicopters and planes growing up.

    As far as the privacy, if they are surveilling public space, it’s legal. If they are peeping in on your back yard and you don’t like that, there are tensile products you can buy to tell them to mind their business. I personally have nothing to hide, but know that in this region we live under a threat of attack so I’m ok with some added security. Where it goes too far is public liberties being taken away like the surveillance of checked out books under the Bush administration and other invasions of personal information.

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