Black Friday

FBI expands anti-privacy surveillance from the air

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

June 22, 2015

Give them an inch, they take a yard. Such is the reality when it comes to government encroachment on privacy. That is why I seem to be the only non-conservative not ecstatic about the government classifying the Internet as a utility, or the celebrations by net neutrality enthusiasts. But that is another subject for another time. This article addresses a further example of “government surveillance creep”- a secret surveillance air force being operated covertly by the FBI.

Back in November I wrote about the proliferation of “dirtboxes” – devices affixed to light aircraft operated by the government which can spy on civilian’s cell-phone communications. In this latest episode, apparently law enforcement has once again adopted not only the methods, but the actual aircraft used in military surveillance in the Middle East to once again spy on Americans from the sky, and thus expanding the skyborne-spying.

The never-ending drumbeat of intrusive surveillance tactics continues, just as small gains such as the USA Freedom Act are registered. I use the term “small gains” advisedly because law enforcement will still be able to access all the records it wants, and probable cause warrants are still not required.

It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the FBI has been operating a secret fleet of small aircraft. It was the next logical step after the employment of “dirtboxes” and co-opting the Wi-Fi providers of airlines. Its actions, however have not gone unnoticed in Congress, and the hope is that Congress may nip the practice in the bud through legislation – though we shouldn’t hold our collective breaths.

Liberal democratic Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon), a staunch advocate of privacy rights, declared that “Americans’ privacy rights don’t stop at the treetops.” He has attracted bi-partisan support from a Republican colleague, Dean Heller (Nevada) for his legislation, the Protecting Individuals from Mass Aerial Surveillance Act.

The initiative comes two weeks after the Associated Press “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 major cities and rural areas.” The planes, using battlefield-tested technology such as day/night hi-def hi-res imagery, are in use all over the US. More troubling for transparency purpose, the planes ownership was hidden using fake company registrations.

The proposed legislation would render any evidence gathered through such means inadmissible in court if obtained without a warrant, and would also prohibit private carriers from participating in any such nefarious practices in collaboration with government agencies. Heller claims the measure would protect the public “from being trampled by the government’s intrusion from above and provide much needed clarity on what authority the federal government has related to aerial surveillance.” But does the bill go far enough?

Before we get too excited, it should be pointed out that there are loopholes – just as there are in the USA Freedom Act which didn’t put a dent in probable-cause warrant abuse. In this case, local and state law enforcement is not covered. You can see the obvious shortcomings here with the FBI getting around the law by co-opting the locals. Anyone following the stingray saga knows how that works. Local jurisdictions, at the behest of the FBI, were sacrificing convictions rather than expose the stingray technology to the courts or the public. All accomplished with the blessing, nay the coercion of the FBI.

Other troubling loopholes are also apparent in the law not applying to immigration patrols within 25 miles of a land border, wildlife management, or illegal marijuana growing operations. Again, it is rife for abuse using these exigent conditions as possible go-arounds. Yet despite the obvious bowing to law enforcement, the bill may never become law, as lawmakers are loath to demand probable-cause warrants to protect Americans’ privacy.

President Obama came into office with the promise that he would end the heavy-handed assault on privacy experienced during the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Sadly, he seems to have doubled-down on those policies, and in the bargain has trampled transparency. What’s more alarming is that as his feeble presidency winds down, the horizon is peopled by possible successors who either have been part of his posse, or likely proponents of Bush’s programs.

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