It's not paranoia if they are flying mysterious planes over your house
June 2, 2015 3:50 PM   Subscribe

 
> "But whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans."

You heard the man. DARN sure. That's as sure as you can get.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:53 PM on June 2, 2015 [46 favorites]


The surveillance equipment is used for ongoing investigations, the FBI says, generally without a judge's approval.

Good times.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:55 PM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


What's the right emotion between flipping tables and wallowing in a corner with a bottle?

Is it nothing? I bet it's nothing.
posted by erratic meatsack at 4:02 PM on June 2, 2015 [40 favorites]


erratic meatsack: "What's the right emotion between flipping tables and wallowing in a corner with a bottle?

Is it nothing? I bet it's nothing.
"

An eye-roll and a heavy sigh.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:03 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


Wallowing under a flipped table with a bottle on it? In a corner?
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:03 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


"But whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans."

Americans who are not innocent (of everything) do not have civil liberties, though, obviously, and we have to figure out how is innocent and who is not, so TA-DA, POLICE STATE
posted by clockzero at 4:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [16 favorites]


I mean really: "The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement [...]"

Could that read any slimier?
posted by erratic meatsack at 4:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [106 favorites]


"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement.

"...Not anymore", he muttered sullenly under his breath.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:07 PM on June 2, 2015 [61 favorites]


>Wallowing under a flipped table with a bottle on it? In a corner?

That's taking cover behind a barriade with a make-shift weapon, and likely to get you shot by law-enforcement officers.
posted by solitary dancer at 4:09 PM on June 2, 2015 [17 favorites]


Fine. You win this round, Alex Jones...
posted by Atom Eyes at 4:10 PM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Darn sure is the third most sure there is, people! What else do we need??
posted by boo_radley at 4:13 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is this from Night Vale? This is, right?
posted by sio42 at 4:17 PM on June 2, 2015 [21 favorites]


Metafilter's own jjwiseman has been researching this for a few weeks: see this comment on MeFi or his Twitter feed, which includes GPS traces of the aircraft around LA.
posted by Nelson at 4:18 PM on June 2, 2015 [37 favorites]


"The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement "

"Flowers By Irene"

This is not a problem our Canadian law enforcement agencies have. Are number corporations not a thing south of the border?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:19 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Is this from Night Vale? This is, right?


Nope, they use helicopters. Totally different thing.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:22 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Flowers
By
Irene

posted by The Card Cheat at 4:27 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


jinx
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:28 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Next thing you'll tell me is that the FBI has offices (holy shit!) in major American cities (OMG!) and that they can drive around in cars (Good lord!) and have the power to arrest people (wake up sheeple!).

Fuck this, I'm moving to Canada but holy shit they have a federal police force, too WTF.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:29 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement
Or they could save money by not spying on us.

It's sad that we've become so jaded (myself included.) It seems like the idea of the American government using airplanes to spy on us like we're in some god-forsaken police state distopia should elicit something stronger from me than wisecracks and a helpless shrug. This is how the bastards wear us down.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:30 PM on June 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


The FPP about the self-driving trucks today mentioned road deaths in the context of "how many 9/11s" they adds up to. I don't think we're ever going to be not spied on again.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:32 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Stripes ran the AP's story here, with the addition of these documents.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:38 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


> The surveillance equipment is used for ongoing investigations, the FBI says, generally without a judge's approval.

Shouldn't judges be getting all kinds of pissed about being marginalized like this?
posted by davelog at 4:40 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Next thing you'll tell me is that the FBI has offices (holy shit!) in major American cities (OMG!) and that they can drive around in cars (Good lord!) and have the power to arrest people (wake up sheeple!).

That's an awfully snide attitude coming from someone who cannot differentiate between the vantage point offered by a car and the vantage point offered by an aircraft.
posted by indubitable at 4:42 PM on June 2, 2015 [24 favorites]


Shouldn't judges be getting all kinds of pissed about being marginalized like this?

I'm inclined to think that "systems are in place" to deal with any ruffled feathers.
posted by erratic meatsack at 4:45 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


Not only do they fly low, but they have extremely loud engines (maybe because they're so low?) impossible to ignore even when the windows are closed and the earplugs are in. They were endemic to my neighborhood until the 2013 "government shutdown" when they suddenly disappeared and then only came back sporadically after that. Thanks, Republicans!
posted by telstar at 4:50 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Surprised to see that the AP is reporting this as a new development.

These guys have been flying over my town (just south of Boston) since just after the Marathon bombing in 2013. Over a year ago they confirmed that our particular plane was related to the bombing investigation, but honestly, everyone knew it was the Feds already -- who else would be circling a Cessna through Boston airspace?
posted by pie ninja at 4:53 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Technically, you're probably hearing the prop tips, they travel near the speed of sound and are loud because of the shockwaves that form as a consequence. /derail
posted by indubitable at 4:54 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


> Shouldn't judges be getting all kinds of pissed about being marginalized like this?

One guess whose secrets they uncovered were.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 4:54 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


We are basically living the plot to Blue Thunder.
posted by Muddler at 5:17 PM on June 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


"But whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans."

I read this and as an immigrant I always notice the implicit "fuck you resident alien" in the language. Of course my lack of privacy protection is contagious.
posted by srboisvert at 5:23 PM on June 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's just wonderful how the government says "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" to us and then they hide all kinds of shit from us, and then when we uncover their shit they say "Move along or I'll give you something to fear."
posted by infinitewindow at 5:27 PM on June 2, 2015 [43 favorites]


We are basically living the plot to Blue Thunder.

Where's Stringfellow Hawk when you need him?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:30 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Officials say cellphone surveillance from FBI aircraft was rarely used.

I'm sure they won't mind removing that equipment and its antennas from the planes, then. Because no one would add equipment, and thus weight, to an aircraft, without actually using it.
posted by zippy at 5:30 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


My computers and my phone are near to under martial law. Innocent is a rather hollow adjective.
posted by bukvich at 5:32 PM on June 2, 2015


No, you're good, srboisvert. What's left of the 4th Amendment explicitly covers persons, not just citizens.
posted by notyou at 5:35 PM on June 2, 2015


I say we "moon" the bastards when they fly by.

Who's with me?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:37 PM on June 2, 2015



The crying shame of it is that we have no recourse to all the government surveillance beyond our pathetic snarky comments on metafilter.
posted by notreally at 5:48 PM on June 2, 2015 [21 favorites]


That's taking cover behind a barriade with a make-shift weapon, and likely to get you shot by law-enforcement officers.

Cringing is fine, just don't lunge or you might get shot. I don't know what it is with all those lungers.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:56 PM on June 2, 2015


The crying shame of it is that we have no recourse to all the government surveillance beyond our pathetic snarky comments on metafilter.
posted by notreally


Right? I was just thinking that if I actually took the longstanding advice of contacting my local congress-people about these kinds of issues, I'd turn into a raving vitamin-D deficient lunatic who literally has no time for anything else in the world.

So I don't know. Go adopt from your local animal shelter and donate to a charity of your choice? I guess?
posted by erratic meatsack at 6:02 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the link to jjwiseman's comment, Nelson. I remembered that I had seen a comment about this here a few weeks ago, but I couldn't remember the context. I appreciate jjwiseman and others who have spoken up about seeing these.

Me, I'm hunkered down with my cats because I'm not sure what else to do.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:05 PM on June 2, 2015


this is the kind of thing that makes you wonder if the government really shouldn't be shrunken down until you can drown it in a bathtub
posted by pyramid termite at 6:08 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


They spend so much time and waste so much money to "protect" people from some vague undefined threat that they haven't realized they are the threat.
posted by downtohisturtles at 6:14 PM on June 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


So, about that Patriot Act...
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:22 PM on June 2, 2015


I'm concerned about the drones.
posted by clavdivs at 6:26 PM on June 2, 2015


All the better to entrap you with, my dears.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:32 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


The front companies made me think of the many fictitious CIA private carriers documented in Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson's Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights (interview). Whatever we've seen of this program so far, it's likely just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:34 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


There have been spies, and spy agencies, for EVER. From the very beginning of the country.

Yep, they are using new technology. That is not a surprise. Yes, they are trying not to let their methods and practices be generally known. That's kind of what you do when you are spies.

I know, on one hand "omg, police state!" but there's that other hand that we have always had doing its thing all along.
posted by yhbc at 6:46 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


So it's illegal for me to register a car in my state under a fictitious name/company. Isn't that what the FBI is doing here? And how are they exempted?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 6:46 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Purposeful: for the same reason cops can run a red light when they need to, and you can't. The question, as always, is whether the cops NEEDED to run that particular red light, and in the case at bar, whether the FBI NEEDS to be doing aerial surveillance, and keep it under wraps.
posted by yhbc at 6:52 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I ended up not publishing the list of suspected front companies I had compiled because I hadn't figured out the best way to do it responsibly (there's always the example set by Snowden--give them to a good journalist). But it appears that it was independently discovered at least 4 times: By Sam Richards ("Fleet of Government Aircraft Flying Secret Missions over U.S. Cities"), the AP journalists that wrote this article, Brian Abelson ("Track 84 Aircrafts the FBI uses for Surveillance"), and by me.

I wrote up the process of how I created my list. Kashmir Hill adds some context in this article: "How you can track the FBI’s spy planes".

There are a few points I want to draw extra attention to:
  • "Data journalism FTW." This is a great example of people using publically available data to uncover an important story: unencrypted transponder pings, FlightRadar flight tracks (actually none of the planes I've tracked were broadcasting the ADS-B position information that lets you see their tracks, so I assume this was position data from the FAA feed), and FAA registration records.
  • It wasn't hard. Many of the front company names are unusually similar, and have almost the same address. One company in the FAA records actually has exactly the same address as a record for the DOJ, and there are two other companies that share a PO Box. I assume that's a mistake, so let's hope they're more careful keeping our intercepted cell data secure! As soon as I saw the company names for some of the aircraft that looked suspicious, it was obvious I was on to something, and I immediately thought of Trevor Paglen's description of CIA front companies from Blank Spots on the Map.
  • Multiple people were motivated enough to figure this out, and tell the story.
  • The paranoid conspiracy nuts were right this time. Googling the suspect tail numbers led me to fringe conspiracy forums and crazy YouTube videos. But they were right--Those mysterious planes overhead actually were FBI surveillance aircraft.
  • This is not actually news: There are articles as far back as 2013 about the FBI using Cessnas for aerial surveillance. I think it's getting more attention now because the dry, abstract description of surveillance planes overhead is replaced by screenshots of circle tracks over multiple cities, and even pictures of the planes.
  • I've seen a couple suspected FBI planes over Los Angeles for 4 or 5 hours at a time, every day or every other day, for at least two months, with some evidence of that occurring in other cities as well. That feels less like targeted surveillance of individual suspects in an investigation (which I feel like is the FBI's job) and more like potential persistent surveillance or an indiscriminate data dragnet.
  • There's more to be done, that can be done by motivated citizens: For example, I'd love for someone to get an IMSI-catcher detector near one of these planes, either on the ground or in the air. It wouldn't tell us anything we don't already know, but the screenshot might also be galvanizing.
posted by jjwiseman at 6:56 PM on June 2, 2015 [89 favorites]


What bugs me most about this and the thing with the Patriot Act is the refusal to just get a goddamned warrant. They're bad guys? You need to protect innocent people from them? Sure. Great. Convince a judge enough and get a godddamned warrant. That's our system guys!
posted by ob1quixote at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2015 [34 favorites]


The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement.

"I know I stole this car, but you shouldn't take it from me or I'll just have to steal another one."
posted by Buckt at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


who else would be circling a Cessna through Boston airspace?

*raises hand*
posted by backseatpilot at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


One more (sub-)point: I loved figuring this out using the tools of persistent surveillance, but aimed at the government instead of at its citizens: Once I identified a plane as being suspicious via other criteria, I could check my database of transponder pings to see what it had done in the past, which provided more evidence. Persistent SIGINT + OSINT = gotcha!
posted by jjwiseman at 7:04 PM on June 2, 2015 [13 favorites]


When I run out of stuff to read on the various classy and intellectual blogs I visit, I like to read conspiracy theory forums. Sometimes they're right, and it's really interesting to see how that paranoid/obsessive viewpoint picks up on things.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 7:05 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is so ridiculous I don't even know what to think.
posted by gucci mane at 7:40 PM on June 2, 2015


Surprised to see that the AP is reporting this as a new development. [...] but honestly, everyone knew it was the Feds already -- who else would be circling a Cessna through Boston airspace?

Just for a second here, may I say? This is not a helpful attitude. This confuses suspicions with facts, between which is a gigantic difference. This is conflating journalism with the lady I met on the bus this morning who personally told me the Queen of England murdered her family. (Note: this actually happened. Funny, she seemed sane otherwise.)

And honestly, nothing someone says that everyone knows is literally known by everyone. In this case, especially, even if it were actually known by everyone in your neighborhood instead of just darkly rumored, it wouldn't be known to us here in Brunswick, GA. That's why the Associated Press reported it and not just your local alt weeklies.

Please, everyone, don't conflate aloud something you and your friends think might be with reporting. Nothing is obvious, and this is even less obvious than that.
posted by JHarris at 7:42 PM on June 2, 2015 [26 favorites]


What are some good conspiracy theory forums? I subscribe to /r/conspiracy, but would like to branch out.
posted by fivebells at 7:53 PM on June 2, 2015


Guys. The planes are listening right now. Cool it.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:02 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


As the conspiracy nuts say, they like to hide in "plane" sight! Hahahaha! Ahem.
posted by aydeejones at 8:15 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, the FBI should've started crop-dusting with something innocuous like vegetable glycerine vapor to throw the scent off the spy trail and onto the chem trail
posted by aydeejones at 8:17 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm just happy they aren't using this to give the F-35 something to do. That fucker is one loud slow-ass VTOL aero-plane! I saw one at an airshow awhile back and a giant turkey vulture flew in from miles away to see WTF the racket was about.

This is strange and does feel like a weird cheap loophole being exploited. The 4th amendment is three-dimensional bros
posted by aydeejones at 8:21 PM on June 2, 2015


"Blendin Catering"
posted by en forme de poire at 8:23 PM on June 2, 2015


A key element to this, particularly jjwiseman's work, is that civilian airplane transponders are unencrypted. They broadcast their identity and (often) exact GPS location in the clear, for anyone to receive. This is on purpose, and good design, it enables collision avoidance avionics. It also makes the FBI planes stand out. It seems likely that DoJ will try to get permission to fly more stealthily in the future. FAA will push back, because having planes flying dark in crowded airspace is dangerous. It'll make a mess.
posted by Nelson at 8:33 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I bet they're the ones behind the chemtrails too...
posted by Renoroc at 8:48 PM on June 2, 2015


I saw a helicopter with some kind of high-end optics pod circling a nearby block of houses off and on for almost two days. When I looked up its N-number it belonged to a completely innocuous charter aircraft company two states away.

Whelp. Now I know what that was.
posted by clarknova at 9:20 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm inclined to think that "systems are in place" to deal with any ruffled feathers.

And the systems are staffed by Top Men.
posted by Tailkinker to-Ennien at 9:27 PM on June 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


What are some good conspiracy theory forums? I subscribe to /r/conspiracy, but would like to branch out.

If you want good information there are better places than forums. The forbidden bookshelf is a good start.
posted by bukvich at 9:29 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Question: why civilian planes instead of drones? As told on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, they're invisible to people on the ground, to the point where clear blue skies are terrifying for people living with drone strikes as a reality. Are civilian planes selected because they look so mundane, if anyone was to pay attention? Would there be this kind of public intel available on drones circling above US cities?
posted by filthy light thief at 10:06 PM on June 2, 2015


I think a Cessna is cheaper, like $500-600K vs. $5M for an MQ-1 Predator. Drones of that class are cheaper than fighters or bombers, but way more expensive than Cessnas.

Drones also require special training for the operators, and a lot of red tape with the FAA. And you're still probably not going to be allowed to fly it for hours at a time over city centers or areas with a lot of air traffic (their accident rates are still higher than for manned aircraft).

When Predators are spotted flying over a city for hours, it will cause a ruckus.

You could look at smaller drones, but they will have some of the same disadvantages of Predators and some new ones specific to that class (shorter endurance, smaller sensor payload capability.

A drone just doesn't really have many advantages in this situation.
posted by jjwiseman at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


But i should mention that the FBI does use drones in some situations, and is looking to expand their use. E.g. http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/19/politics/fbi-drones/:
The official said drones are useful in hostage and barricade situations because they operate more quietly and are less visible than traditional aircraft such as helicopters.

Bureau spokesman Paul Bresson said their use allows "us to learn critical information that otherwise would be difficult to obtain without introducing serious risk to law enforcement personnel."

Bresson said the aircraft can only be used to perform surveillance on stationary subjects and the FBI must first get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in a "very confined geographic area."
posted by jjwiseman at 10:24 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


No government drones allowed in US airspace, per FAA, unless granted an exemption, which application details... What jjwiseman just said.
posted by notyou at 10:26 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's our system guys!

no, it isn't...
posted by carping demon at 11:50 PM on June 2, 2015


I say we "moon" the bastards when they fly by.

I'd just like to take this opportunity to remind you all that you should pay no attention to the moon. Sometimes one of our friends or an innocent family member will mention the moon, and you may be tempted to look at it. However, it is a barren, rocky satellite, and it is very far from us, just as you've seen on television and in the cinema, and so there is nothing to see. It certainly isn't smaller and closer. It has no value as a surveillance asset. It does not direct mind control technology at surface-level or atmospheric targets.

I repeat, pay no attention to the moon.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:07 AM on June 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


Time to finish work on my cloudbuster and upgrade it to chembusting and sylph activation as well.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:27 AM on June 3, 2015


We had a low flying helicopter yesterday, part of urban warfare exercise. Scheduled.
Carry on.
posted by clavdivs at 5:05 AM on June 3, 2015


A key element to this, particularly jjwiseman's work, is that civilian airplane transponders are unencrypted. They broadcast their identity and (often) exact GPS location in the clear, for anyone to receive.

So that's how we know that a low flying airplane that's just hanging out in one spot is our buddy backseatpilot or an aerial surveying company and not the Feds?
posted by NoMich at 5:36 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


who else would be circling a Cessna through Boston airspace?

I'm not actually doubting the FBI story's plausibility, but speaking as someone who lives near a small airport (of which there are usually several in any urban/suburban area) amateur and student pilots practicing landings and other maneuvers make plenty of repetitive circling runs over my neighborhood at low altitude.
posted by aught at 5:52 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Please, everyone, don't conflate aloud something you and your friends think might be with reporting. Nothing is obvious, and this is even less obvious than that.

I live near the Boston Marathon start line. Even before the bombing camo painted and unmarked helicopters both would buzz our neighborhood for several days prior to the Marathon. Since the bombing, that seems to me to have intensified, my neighbors report that bright and early the morning of the marathon the state police are out with dogs sniffing through our yards and around our houses (I'm never up that early, so I wouldn't know), pink check mark lines appear on most but not all of our cars, and the Cessna starts flying around the neighborhood.

I'm mostly happy that the authorities are making sure my neighborhood is safe, I think....? Maybe...? But it also feels pretty uncomfortable. Why don't I get a pink line on my car? I'm a good citizen. Is there something suspicious about me? We all have to be wanded when we walk to the end of the street to cheer the runners on. Isn't that a bit much? We live here- it's pretty unlikely any of us moved here just so we could make trouble on Marathon Monday.

I'm very grateful to the reporting in this piece. I'm not a fan of living in a surveillance state and good reporting is one of the few tools the public has to combat the slide towards way too much surveillance.

And- it's also possible for me to know things without an expert telling me they are so. I can reasonably know that the pink marks on my neighbors' cars were not put there by fairies. Public knowledge is a continuum, of which one end is me and my friends and the other is the AP. jjwiseman and the other two people who they mention in their comment are also on that continuum (much closer to the AP side).

I guess I don't know my own point, lol, except JHarris' comment got my back up a little because it seemed to dismiss the frustration of the people who are the actual recipients of the surveillance because we are not the AP. So I wanted to reiterate that, indeed, it really is not paranoia if the planes are obviously not-right in some way. It is often possible for ordinary citizens to tell when things are not-right, and insofar as civic change is ever possible, the frustration/anger/etc of ordinary citizens is meaningful and necessary.
posted by shiawase at 6:08 AM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


except JHarris' comment got my back up a little because it seemed to dismiss the frustration of the people who are the actual recipients of the surveillance because we are not the AP

I understand your frustration, and am sorry that my response seemed flip. But I'm not going to apologize for making that comment. I am emphasizing that journalism matters, it is something more than just what has been going around. They may be late to the scene, but it is so, so important that they got there, and part of the reason it took them so long was doing work to track down the details and get the evidence.

Because one of the reasons government secrecy and surveillance is such an endemic problem is because it is just that, secret. You might see that airplane flying low day by day and think, look at that, it's been there a lot, maybe it's the police? But really, you don't know for sure. And someone you tell that to, like me for instance, will hear what you say, and maybe I'll believe you and maybe I won't, because I don't live there, and I hear lots of crazy stuff all the time, from people I know a lot better than you. And secretive organizations take advantage of that, of all that cultural static, of the low signal-to-noise ratio of hearsay and rumor. For you weren't paranoid, but how was I, or anyone, to know that?

If one person has a suspicion that's true, what's to distinguish it from the hundreds of people who think Queen Elizabeth secretly controls the world, or 9/11 was an inside job? That's what journalism does for us, it tries to find out for sure. Ideally, journalism and science should be arm-in-arm in pushing back the darkness.

And- it's also possible for me to know things without an expert telling me they are so.

In fact, it's the opposite -- it is impossible to know things even if an expert tells you that it is so. Experts get things wrong all the time; just turn on cable news for proof. Objective truth does not exist. Knowledge is a Hard Problem. All we can do is iteratively get better. And the difficulty in knowing anything for sure, even without powerful groups actively trying to hide behind profound uncertainty, is a big part of why I hate secrecy from what should be our own government, our representatives. It is a fundamental betrayal.
posted by JHarris at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


civilian airplane transponders are unencrypted. They broadcast their identity and (often) exact GPS location in the clear, for anyone to receive. This is on purpose, and good design, it enables collision avoidance avionics. It also makes the FBI planes stand out. It seems likely that DoJ will try to get permission to fly more stealthily in the future. FAA will push back, because having planes flying dark in crowded airspace is dangerous. It'll make a mess.

Not as much of a mess as a mid-air collision over an urban area because some civilian pilot -- say, one of the students aught refers to -- collides with the FBI plane because it didn't show up on their collision avoidance system.

All of the above is theoretical, of course, but as a former student pilot myself I would hope the FAA puts the kibosh on any move by the FBI to have its aircraft go dark.
posted by Gelatin at 6:56 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


So that's how we know that a low flying airplane that's just hanging out in one spot is our buddy backseatpilot or an aerial surveying company and not the Feds?

Yeah, basically (assuming the transponder is transmitting). Each transponder is hard-coded with an octal identification code, and that code is correlated to the registration of the aircraft. You can look up FAA registrations very easily (that's one of our club planes), and the registration information provided includes the transponder code. It's not difficult to start from the transponder code and figure out the registration.

As far as "running dark" over major cities... I would classify that as "extremely improbable bordering on suicidal". Class B airspace (what you would find surrounding large, busy airports) is tightly controlled, and one of the requirements for entering the airspace is a working Mode C transponder. It would be incredibly dangerous to be operating a slow-moving VFR aircraft in the same space as large jets taking off and landing without having that transponder for air traffic control to target and track. Especially around a place like Boston where some of the departure and arrival procedures go straight over downtown.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:04 AM on June 3, 2015


So that's how we know that a low flying airplane that's just hanging out in one spot is our buddy backseatpilot or an aerial surveying company and not the Feds?

You don't know what the plane is, initially. But if you see the same airplane loitering or flying a scanning pattern day after day it starts to looks suspicious. And then you look up the tail number and see who owns or operates the plane and it's a sham company with a PO Box in Washington DC and it starts to look a bit more suspicious. That's my impression on how jjwiseman figured this out, based on reading his tweets.

And to update on what backseatpilot said, modern Mode S transmissions make this a whole lot easier than the old octal Mode C codes. Each plane has a permanent unique ID. And many of them are broadcasting exact locations, with altitude. With a $20 USB radio and some free software you can easily pick the info up. I spent one lazy afternoon figuring out how to watch what looked like Beale Air Force drone tests. Easy peasy.

Also agreed that drones are not practical for what FBI is doing today. But I expect in 5-10 years they will be.

One last thing: pilots are huge gossips. Someone's flying these FBI planes, probably contract civilians who are just hired on and grateful for the work. They hang out on the ramp and they have drinks after work, surely someone's told someone more about what the missions are for.
posted by Nelson at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


So that's how we know that a low flying airplane that's just hanging out in one spot is our buddy backseatpilot or an aerial surveying company and not the Feds?
  1. Check the tail number against one of the lists that a couple people have published containing the 100 or so suspected FBI aircraft.
  2. Use your RTL-SDR or flightradar24 or flightaware etc. to see if its transponder is set to 4414 or 4415, or that it has a callsign that starts with "JENA" or "JENNA".
  3. Listen to its radio communications: Does the pilot talk about being "on station" or relieved by another aircraft?
  4. Is it a Cessna 182T? Those seem particularly popular with the FBI.
  5. Is it flying at about 5000 feet?
  6. Is it loitering for hours?
  7. Look up the registered owner's address. Is it in one of the cities where the suspected front companies are clustered? That includes Bristow VA, Greenville DE, Wilmington DE, and Manassas VA. Does it have a PO Box in that city? Does it actually share an address with one of the companies in the list of suspects?
  8. Does flightradar24 or flightaware show it flying in circles?
You can see this isn't really a definitive way to prove something--it's a matter of an accumulation of suspicion using criteria that have been observed to be significant. And yet that's how the published lists of suspect companies were compiled. All we know for sure is that the FBI admitted a plane flown by NG Research is actually theirs.

This is why I kept asking myself whether I was just being paranoid.
posted by jjwiseman at 8:23 AM on June 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'll be honest, jjwiseman, as I was reading your tweets this last month I kind of thought you were being paranoid.

The silly thing about all this is the secrecy. If the FBI wants to fly planes around major cities hoovering up cell phone signals, OK, fine. Just say you're doing that and have a public debate on whether that is legal and a good use of public funds. This review and discussion is how democracy works. But the post-9/11 US surveillance apparatus is all about avoiding public review because some government bureaucrat thinks he knows better. It is wrong, dangerous to our government.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


I know, it all sounded like classic conspiracy paranoia. And I don't actually consider any of this settled: We know about NG Research for sure. Then we have a lot of pretty iffy evidence--even the address shared with a DOJ office could be an FAA record keeping error. It's enough to motivate further investigation, though.
posted by jjwiseman at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is why I have sex with dogs on the roof.

"These are not your grandparents' surveillance aircraft," said Jay Stanley,”
*cue guitar riff!*
*put sunglasses on surveillance aircraft so it looks COOL!*
posted by Smedleyman at 9:27 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was kind of surprised at how many of the shell companies' names are three-letter initials. I would think that whoever is in charge of something like this would be able to make up names that aren't so obvious.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:33 AM on June 3, 2015


I understand your frustration, and am sorry that my response seemed flip. But I'm not going to apologize for making that comment. I am emphasizing that journalism matters

Thanks for the clarification. I wouldn't expect an apology for the comment- I think overall it was right on target and I agree that journalism is critical in verifying the... I still feel like "suspicions" isn't quite the right word but... I guess "ground level knowledge" maybe?... of the people who are actually in a particular situation, and also in reporting that information to a wider audience.
posted by shiawase at 10:21 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I would think that whoever is in charge of something like this would be able to make up names that aren't so obvious.

Coming from the government that named the 2008 financial bailout "TARP"? Or all of those silly NSA spying program acronyms? Operation Iraqi Liberation?

I would bet those Whoevers in charge of this didn't think this information would ever see the light of day.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 10:27 AM on June 3, 2015


My pet theory is an Occultist Symbolism Conspiracy thing where it's important for you to see the symbols but not know what they mean.

(I actually don't know what I am talking about, nor actually believe this).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:36 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'll bet they're running a spreadsheet macro with a name like front-company-generator.xls to churn out individually plausible, inoffensive, and uninteresting company names.
posted by zippy at 12:45 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


In the great metafilter tradition of probabilistic text generation, I did train a neural network to create new FBI front company names after giving it the 17 I found as input. Some of these might stand out under casual scrutiny, though:

NBR LASING
PXW SEENON
RRT AVAION
UNITED SING
PSL SURVVION
LSSERRNORWAVIATION
CORAORTI AEEAIRCRAFT LEASING
LOBBB AVIATION
PAD AIROUCTION
BORRAV ALEASING
posted by jjwiseman at 1:46 PM on June 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


LSSERRNORWAVIATION
PAD AIROUCTION


I don't see any problem here. These sounds perfectly plausible to me. :-)
posted by shiawase at 2:11 PM on June 3, 2015


> PAD AIROUCTION

Ha. I misread that as "PAID AIRXOCUTION," which is about as Death Metal from Above as you can get.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 4:34 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


LSSERRNORWAVIATION

... is the name of my Sigur Rós cover band. And also all the lyrics.
posted by zippy at 5:12 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


shiawase: "We live here- it's pretty unlikely any of us moved here just so we could make trouble on Marathon Monday. "

That doesn't seem unlikely at all. Your average bombing is rarely an act of whim. Moving inside a security cordon a few months or even a year in advance would seem like an amazingly obvious first step.
posted by Mitheral at 7:02 PM on June 3, 2015




ob1quixote, I think that's a joke site: None of the other suspected companies have any web presence, it seems dumb for DOJ to set one up now, and that site seems to have gone up very recently (June 3 is the first time the wayback machine saw it). Also see this "FVX Research" t-shirt: http://teespring.com/fvx-research (I would totally buy t-shirts for FBI front companies if people just put a little more effort into it!)
posted by jjwiseman at 1:43 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


jjwiseman: “ob1quixote, I think that's a joke site[.]”
I saw it posted on Facebook and thought it was interesting, but the more I think about it, the more I think you must be right.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:13 PM on June 4, 2015


“The story behind ‘FVX Research,’ a web hoax that became an FBI conspiracy craze,” Jason Silverstein and Elizabeth VanMetre, The New York Daily News, 06 June 2015
posted by ob1quixote at 10:53 PM on June 6, 2015


re: gov't recourse and contacting congress-people...

Congress Didn't Notice the FBI Creating a 'Small Air Force' for Surveillance

SRW sez: "why be a check on the executive branch when the people getting hired by the executive branch cut you nice checks?"
posted by kliuless at 9:34 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


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