Friday, February 05, 2016

Secretive government surveillance flights common over Massachusetts: Several viewers reach out to 5 Investigates for answers

BOSTON —Government surveillance planes flying high above Massachusetts: It happens more than you might think.

Using a publicly available website, 5 Investigates tracked government planes over the past six months, finding them above cities and towns all over the state, often flying in circular patterns.

The planes drew the attention of viewers, who asked 5 Investigates what the planes were doing.

"This flight spent hours circling over (F)oxborough...what are they doing? who are they looking for?" one viewer wrote in an email.

A viewer in Lynn, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition he not be identified, had similar concerns.

"Is it taking pictures of everyone? What is going on with it?" he said to Five Investigates' Karen Anderson.

Many in Quincy had a similar experience in the weeks after the Marathon bombings when a low-flying plane was frequently circling the area.

Quincy City Councilor Brian Palmucci fielded numerous calls about it.

"I had the same questions everyone else had," Palmucci said. "Is there some sort of threat to the area, are there precautions we should take?"

The frustration didn't end when residents learned the planes were watching Khairullozon Matanov, a friend of the Tsarnaevs.

"The FBI knew they were following him, he knew they were following him, but the only people they were keeping in the dark were the residents of the city of Quincy," Palmucci said. "It's frustrating."

Last summer the Associated Press tracked FBI surveillance planes for one month above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country. The planes were registered to 13 fake companies.

Who the planes are following, and the technology they're using, all questions the Boston office of the FBI wouldn't discuss, instead pointing us to a statement from headquarters.

"It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals," FBI Deputy Director Mark F. Giuliano said in the statement.

Just how closely guarded the details of the government surveillance program are is evident from the extent of the redactions made to a 2012 Department of Justice Inspector General's report on the program. Even the number of aircraft in the program is redacted.

The public did get a rare glimpse recently of aerial surveillance in action when the FBI released video of the fatal shooting of one of the armed occupiers at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.

The FBI also admits it flew over protests in Baltimore last year after prisoner Freddie Gray's death.

"We should know a lot more about how the FBI is spending our money spying on us," said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty Program.

Crockford said the ACLU does not oppose aerial surveillance but is concerned there is not enough oversight of the program, including its use of invasive technology like cell site simulators, or Stingrays, that collect some bulk cellphone data.

The FBI said that technology is rarely used from planes.

"We know that these flights happen routinely, there's probably one happening right now somewhere in the United States," she said. 

Watch the report:

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