Feds Don’t Fly Their Secret Surveillance Planes on Weekends

Even the federal agents snooping on citizens from above need a day off.

Apr 7 2016, 1:02pm

GIF from BuzzFeed News.

Over the last four months of 2015, US federal agencies have secretly flown spy planes above American cities more than 3,500 times.

That's according to data from the aircraft tracking site FlightRadar24 collected by BuzzFeed News to map out the clandestine surveillance flights, which came to prominence last summer after it was discovered that the FBI had flown light aircraft in circles over the Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore, MD and Ferguson, MO.

The data offers the most comprehensive portrait yet of hidden aerial surveillance operations run by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, which routinely patrol the skies above most major cities looking for terrorists, human traffickers and other "serious criminals."

Well, except maybe on weekends.

The telltale sign of these secret flights is thick circular lines indicating aircraft—often single-engine planes registered to fake companies with names like FVX Research and National Aircraft Leasing Corp—flying around the same area over and over for hours at a time. These patterns can be found by searching public FlightRadar data (which tracks aircraft positions by recording their transponder broadcasts) against a list of known government front companies and aircraft registration numbers.

But the circular patterns practically disappear on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays, when the average flight time drops off more than 70 percent. That suggests that whatever crucial missions the Feds are flying, they're apparently not crucial enough to warrant denying pilots their weekend leisure time.

In response to initial reports last summer, the FBI claimed that the planes are used "to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals," and that they are "not equipped, designed, or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance." The Bureau did admit that the planes are sometimes equipped with cellphone mass-surveillance devices better known as Stingrays, but that this is rare and only occurs "with a court order, or under exigent circumstances such as a hostage situation."

One of the most striking examples comes from the day of the mass-shooting in San Bernardino, CA last December. The flight data shows that within 90 minutes, two planes—one flown by the FBI and the other by Homeland Security—were circling the site of the attack.

The FBI plane later started flying around the home of the two shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The following day, it was joined by two more FBI planes which began making circles around the nearby mosque that Farook attended, some for as many as 3 hours at a time. The planes stopped over the weekend, resuming their flight pattern the following Monday.

The data shows that the FBI and DHS have also routinely flown planes over Muslim areas in other cities including San Francisco and Minneapolis. The planes fly low at altitudes between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, and are equipped with high-resolution FLIR Talon camera payloads and mufflers to reduce engine noise for stealth.

It's not clear why the planes are grounded on weekends, although it could be that due to their secretive nature very few pilots are cleared to operate these flights. Another possibility is that the flights have more ground support staff available during the week.

Alternatively, it could be that these missions are a lot more quotidian and indiscriminate than the FBI and DHS are letting on.