Ears in the Air Pose Fourth Amendment Risk
By Fred Ross
When “eyes in the sky” are mentioned, we generally don’t give these spy satellites much thought because, after all, we can’t see them, they’re way up in space, and they’re not focused on us, right?
Spies Much Closer to Us
But the “friendly skies” a few hundred feet over us actually may not be so friendly after all. Although the feds readily tout our eye-in-the-sky satellite technology, it appears they’ve been a lot less forthcoming about a little air force of 50 to 100 low-flying surveillance planes the FBI has been using in ongoing criminal investigations. These airplanes, mostly conventional Cessna single-engine propeller craft, possess very unconventional, high-tech cameras and sometimes technology that can track thousands of cellphones, so-called Stingrays. These devices are under increasing scrutiny for their potential, and often actual, violations of Fourth Amendment privacy rights of cellphone users.
Airborne Stingrays are Especially Dangerous
For more information about Stingrays, we recommend the following articles:
- “New Hi-Tech Police Surveillance: the Stingray.”
- “Stingray Tracking Devices: Who’s Got Them?”
- “FBI Lets Suspects Go to Protect ‘Stingray’ Secrets.”
- “The Surveillance Tool They Won’t Tell You About.”
As “ears in the air,” Stingray effectiveness is magnified over that of ground-based vehicular units. The Stingray apparatus employed in many of these planes is known as “Dirtbox,” made by Boeing’s Digital Receiver Technology subsidiary for the military and intelligence communities. The signal strength of the Dirtbox likely is significantly stronger than that of conventional, ground-based Stingray units. Speed also is a factor when technology is airborne. Planes can “reach” signals in both crowded city streets and rural areas faster than roadway-limited vehicles. These “advantages” can bring with them added privacy encroachment risk for thousands of innocent citizens when the unit is used.
Reasons for Suspicion
Although the FBI says its airplanes “are not equipped or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance,” certain facts raise concerns:
- Despite using the surveillance planes for decades, the FBI only now is admitting their widespread use.
- The planes are operated by fake cover companies, ostensibly to protect pilots and the secrecy of investigations.
- The operations usually were executed without warrants.
- One such plane was seen above the disturbances in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
- The planes were seen for extended periods of time circling large, enclosed structures in which photography from the air would provide less data than electronic signal detection and recording. These have included Reagan National Airport and Minnesota’s Mall of America.
- Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshalls Service have surveillance airplane fleets with this kind of ability. The DEA has close to 100 craft, and the Marshalls Service, operating out of five airports, has been known to lend its “ears in the air” to community police agencies.
Let’s Keep Our Ears to the Ground
We Ohioans, in fact all Americans, need to become more aware of this potentially dangerous aerial Stingray “uber-snoop” application and how it can damage our Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Although the feds have issued rules regarding data gathering by drones and other unmanned craft, they don’t yet cover surveillance methods employed by piloted aircraft. And although the FBI says its flights comply with these rules, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit skeptical.
The upshot is that as far as ears in the sky go, let’s keep ours to the ground and stay informed.
Fred Ross is a volunteer with the ACLU of Ohio.