Did FBI Planes Track Baltimore Protesters’ Paths and Cell Phones?

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It appears that the FBI used planes to spy electronically on protesters in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed to track their movements, and perhaps catch their cell phone calls. On the night of May 2, Benjamin Shayne, a 39-year-old police-scanner buff, saw a small plane flying in low loops over the city’s west side. As it was night, the plane, as small Cessna 182T, couldn’t have been doing ordinary visual surveillance of the kind that’s become common over the last two decades. (New York police had six helicopters hovering over the May 1 march against police brutality, a ratio of one copter to less than 300 demonstrators.) So what was the plane doing? Using infrared technology to monitor the movements of people in the part of the city where protests and riots had taken place after the killing of Freddie Gray, a government official who insisted on anonymity told the Washington Post.

A government official familiar with the operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters not approved for public release, said the flights were aerial support that Baltimore police officials requested from the FBI. Flight records maintained by the Web site Flightradar24 show two Cessnas — one a propeller plane, the other a small jet — flying precise formations over the part of West Baltimore where the rioting had occurred. The smaller Cessna conducted flights in the area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, always after dark. The planes used infrared technology to monitor movements of people in the vicinity, the official said. The exact reach of the infrared technology is not clear.

Pete Cim­bolic, an aviation buff who used to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, saw Shayne’s Twitter post and began following the plane on an aviation-radar Web site.

It showed a continuous, circling path that appeared to have its center directly above the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where the most violent unrest was centered after Gray’s funeral on April 27. That plane was registered to NG Research in Bristow, near Manassas Regional Airport [in Virginia]. Searches of public records revealed little about the company, which could not be reached. Cimbolic also linked to a long Reddit posting that included reports of seeing the same plane — tail number N539MY — circling above Langley and McLean in Northern Virginia last year. Cimbolic was beginning to worry that he had overreacted when he noticed, on the same flight-radar Web site, the second plane flying higher in the sky, carving bigger loops above West Baltimore. The Web site reported that this plane was a Cessna 560 Citation V, a small jet. But it showed no tail number, offering no possible trail to Federal Aviation Administration records. This only heightened his curiosity.

He contacted the ACLU, which plans to file requests for information about the planes today with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the FAA. The FBI and the Marshals Service both denied using the planes to monitor people’s cell-phone calls. The FBI told the Post that it had not used cell-phone tracking devices such as StingRays in following the protests and riot after Gray was killed. The Marshals Service, which commonly uses cell-phone tracking to locate fugitives, said it hadn’t had any planes in Baltimore. Given the strict secrecy the FBI maintains regarding the use of StingRay devices, the spokespersons denials can’t be taken at face value. Related: Stingray Secrecy Finally Gets Noticed Planes have an advantage over helicopters for aerial surveillance, because they can stay aloft longer and watch over larger areas. Ross McNutt, head of an Ohio-based company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, told the Post that the kinds of sensors used in most government surveillance flights can see at least a five-block-by-five-block area. “The fact that at any point the government or a contractor for the government could have a wide view or a large picture of what’s going on on block after block of the city is really concerning,” Cimbolic told the Post. “It’s scary.” Marylanders are getting used to aerial surveillance. In December, the Army deployed a blimp equipped with surveillance technology at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 30 miles north of Baltimore. The airship is tethered to the ground, floating above Maryland, keeping watch with radars that can monitor everything that moves on the ground within a radius of 340 miles. The Army says its testing the technology, which is designed to protect the nation from cruise missiles, but has not ruled out finding alternative missions for the blimp. Related: Army Launches Eye in the Sky