Civic News

3 new things the ACLU learned about the FBI’s mysterious surveillance planes

The ACLU obtained documents about the flights over Baltimore following the riots.

The Cessna 182T is one of the FBI's preferred surveillance planes.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Blimps weren’t the only airborne surveillance crafts recently flying over Baltimore. In the wake of the rioting that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral, the FBI dispatched a pair of surveillance planes to monitor the area.
Many details were kept secret via front companies and the usual FBI opacity, as Bureau Director James Comey only confirmed that the FBI was behind the flights last week. But the ACLU managed to obtain some interesting tidbits about the program with a Freedom of Information Act request.
An FBI memo states the flights were necessary to assist Baltimore police because “the potential for large scale violence and riots throughout the week presents a significant challenge for the Baltimore Police Department for airborne surveillance and observation.” It was apparently a formality, as the FBI doesn’t believe the Fourth Amendment search protections apply to aerial surveillance, the ACLU states.
Here’s what was learned from the new documents:

1. The planes arrived after the riots

Records indicate the 10 surveillance flights were conducted after the violence broke out on April 25 and 27. The flights were from April 29-May 3, meaning they also took place after State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the police officers involved and tensions in the city were lowered. A Baltimore police officer was onboard with FBI personnel for most flights.

A surveillance plane flight path over Baltimore.

A surveillance plane flight path over Baltimore. (Screenshot via Cimbolic)

2. Video surveillance

The flights had video surveillance equipment, the records show. There’s not an inventory per se, but the ACLU gleaned that one of the planes had an infrared camera mount by Paravion Technology. The exterior of the plane had a FLIR Talon multi-camera system, which includes a thermal imager, optical camera and laser illuminator. Records appear to indicate that the planes also had electronic surveillance equipment, but it’s not known what type. We already know that Baltimore police use so-called “stingray” devices to track cellphones.


3. The footage was saved

The flights circled the city for 36.2 hours. The records that ACLU obtained show (at least) half of the flights conducted video surveillance. And the FBI retained copies of the video for its files, which, well, we all know about FBI files.

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