Examining the Power of Aerial Surveillance – Part I

Examining the Power of Aerial Surveillance – Part I

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This is Part I of a series covering aerial surveillance in America.

MINNEAPOLIS (NSP) – Americans by now are now familiar with concepts of domestic militarization and the growth of the surveillance state at least in a general sense. What is often lacking is specific, detailed information (sometimes by design) that helps the country visualize and deeply understand the issues at hand.

Without precise knowledge of how these systems and programs are being used, We the People are not able to have a proper, informed and accurate debate on the use of advancements such as aerial surveillance. We as a society are not even able to consent to the use of these technologies in an honest way, as is evident in the audio posted below which was recorded during an afternoon of street interviews.

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The American Revolution which forged our nation was substantially spurred along in reaction to the egregious power assumed by the King in the form of ‘General Writs of Assistance.’ Today we would use terminology such as ‘unwarranted search,’ ‘mass surveillance’ and ‘asset forfeiture’ to describe what the colonists experienced under these “much hated Writs.” Anywhere could be searched, these general warrants did not expire until six months after the death of the King, information leading to these invasive searches often times came from hearsay or confidential informants, and goods could be seized without compensation if the searcher suspected they were related to illegal activity.

These searches and seizures were so despised that when founding the first independent governments in 1776 the revolutionaries bound their own governments to stringent requirements that demanded a “particular” (specific) description of what was to be searched. John Adams is often cited as declaring that these abuses of power were the spark that ignited the Revolution. Undeniable abuses of state authority such as these Writs lead directly to not only the Fourth Amendment (which are readers are familiar with) but also the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments ensuring the government can not take life, liberty or property without due process.

Today the technology involved has raised the stakes and the parallels are striking yet our rebellious history is somehow forgotten. Corollaries between the standing armies of centuries ago and the militarized forces of modern American policing provide another red flag. Deep analyses of these subjects reveal that more than just privacy hangs in the balance; the most deeply rooted tenets of our society, the rule of law, and even democracy itself are jeopardized.

All advancements made in the field of war – especially technological – inevitably come home to roost.

“No one made a decision to militarize the police in America. The change has come slowly, the result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring war on abstractions like crime, drug use, and terrorism. The resulting policies have made those war metaphors increasingly real.”
― Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

The myriad intelligence agencies, programs, technologies, internal regulations, laws and even constitutional matters regarding surveillance are not very well understood by the general public. This is obvious in the surveillance debate overall, but even more clear when it comes to the discourse (or lack there of) surrounding domestic aerial surveillance.

A somewhat active week for the FBI aerial surveillance fleet.

Take for example H.R. 3962: ‘Protecting Individuals From Mass Aerial Surveillance Act of 2015’. The Act, which in part would have required a warrant or court order for the use of aerial surveillance of any kind. H.R. 3962 attracted immediate bipartisan support in Congress as well as wide public support following the disclosure of the FBI Sky Spies.

Despite the wide support and unquestionable need for legislation in this arena, the bill basically stalled in Congress last year. Requiring a warrant for a search is a fundamental requirement of a lawful society. Perhaps the speed of disclosure and movement towards implementing law outpaced the public understanding and will required to push for such laws. In other words, perhaps if the public knew more acutely what was really happening overhead and the effect of those activities on their rights, the law would be in effect.

A hard look into the shadowy world of aerial surveillance is overdue. Starting with the technology, we will explain the power of these systems and provide visuals and examples while examining real world case studies.

‘DRT Boxes’ are advertised to prospective buyers as capable of monitoring 10,000 targets and are aircraft ready. The range of the various models of DRT Boxes is publicly not know. To get a ballpark estimate of the range of this family of devices we examine two devices of which the ranges are now public knowledge thanks to the outstanding investigative journalism of The Intercept and a brave and patriotic whistle blower. Typhon and Windjammer are used for our purposes to demonstrate effective range of surveillance gear designed specifically to be mounted on aircraft and “flown above the crowd” according to the Secret Surveillance Catalog.

With how long the FBI Sky Spies remain airborne, flying back and forth and circling, over dense populations centers the threat to liberty is great. Furthermore, when an FBI spy-plane is tasked to a certain city, it will more often than not, make daily (and nightly) flights over that city for sometimes weeks or even months at a time. In the case of Burke, VA multiple FBI Sky Spies were continuously active for months, one reader of North Star Post said their presence was so routine that it was like clockwork.

Our first case study will be Charlotte, North Carolina. It is safe to categorize Charlotte as a medium sized city. Readers may be surprised to learn that a single spy-plane has the power to surveil the entire city. The FBI Sky Spies utilize multiple advanced technologies to vacuum up an immense amount of intelligence on targets below. The first being a visual platform with tremendous capacity in itself. The second, any number of aircraft accommodating signals intelligence gathering devices. Combining these different types of intelligence data assuredly yields a great deal of information for analysis.

Charlotte last week

‘ARGUS’ will be the visual component we focus on for these case studies. ARGUS is described as a ‘wide area persistent surveillance’ system which is an apt description in that it boasts a 1.8 gigapixel array that was developed for drones to be used over combat zones. Wide area persistent surveillance effectively means any object (pedestrian, car, even bird) within a 36 square-mile area can be tracked in real-time.

PSS Analysts

It’s also beneficial (albeit somewhat paranoia inducing) to bear in mind that the information on the wide area persistent surveillance systems above is somewhat outdated and the imaging systems being developed and fielded today are probably even more powerful. Wide area persistent surveillance systems are bragged about by their proponents using the Orwellian phrase that they can capture the “pattern of life” of areas below when airborne on a consistent basis. Think of the profound conclusions this will bring once there are similar systems above every city and computers constantly crunching the torrent of data on a regular (or instant) basis. Google has already publicly stated they are able to predict where people will be and their behavior based upon a combination of GPS and other data.

Windjammer over Charlotte, NC.

Secondarily, as the FBI spy-planes compound visual intelligence gathering with signals intelligence (cell phones and laptops primarily), we would be remiss to leave Typhon or Windjammer examples out of the case study at hand. The Windjammer, as noted in the graphic above, has an effective airborne range of greater than eight miles. That means that if a surveillance aircraft is equipped with a Windjammer, wherever that aircraft flies it could potentially monitor information on devices in a bubble around it with an eight mile radius.

When reviewing flight path information from FBI Sky Spies over various locations it is easy to simply assume that the target of the aircraft in question is directly below the green line pictured. This may explain why public outrage over these flights has yet to produce any restrictions, oversight or other reforms. Like was stated earlier, the range of DRT Boxes is a closely guarded secret. Windjammer has an impressive eight mile range, but there could be yet more powerful devices flying overhead. Next time you see a flight path of an FBI spy-plane or surveillance aircraft of any other agency, picture a fat bubble around the aircraft to get an idea of the scope the aircraft may indeed have.

Charlotte Pop. Dens. & FSS flight

The graphic above represents the population density of Charlotte. You’ll notice that last week, the FBI aircraft shown next to the population density map of Charlotte overflew some of the most densely populated parts of town. This is important in that if our particular plane was equipped with something less powerful than Windjammer, (say for the sake of argument four-times less powerful) that solitary flight still could have performed a search on a majority of the city’s residents.

Our second case study will be America’s largest metropolis – New York City. The FBI Sky Spies are routinely over the Big Apple. Within eight miles of the center of that eerie green circle there are 3,526,753 residents. The flight path pictured above was flown last week. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles about these flights over large cities like New York, it is reasonable to assume that cell intercept technology is the primary purpose of such a flight as visual intelligence would be hampered by surrounding buildings (this is not to say visual data like that provided by ARGUS would be useless).

NYC FSS flight and Pop. Bubble

Cell phone surveillance technologies operate by providing a very strong signal that force cell phones in range to connect to the device. Following the connection the device will request any and all information required then issue a disconnect order.

IMSI Catcher Function

With the above facts and population encircled in mind we can clearly see the vast power and capabilities of even a single spy-plane over a large metropolitan area. A lone, single engine Cessna with some fancy surveillance gadgets violating the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of Americans.

Before leaving the east coast for our final case study into aerial surveillance, let’s take a look at another potential great abuse of government authority. Often times while doing audits of the whereabouts of the FBI Sky Spies what appear to be harmless re-positioning flights take place. On September 14th, 2015 one such linear flight path was recorded for our weekly aerial surveillance report. For the sake of this analysis, the green line was widened to provide a 16 mile wide berth to ascertain how many Americans below this specific flight path could be searched by the spy-plane. The figure calculated stands at 11.5 million… from a single flight. This doesn’t mean that each and every single one of that immense figure was searched but the ability to subject a large number of that group to a search existed during the course of that one flight.

Our last case study brings us to the rural, roadside towns of Bunkerville, Riverside and Mesquite on the Nevada side of the Arizona – Nevada border. Recently N813JH has been monitoring these communities (pictured below) on February the 26th, 28th, 29th, continuing to March 1st and probably will keep circling above for days, maybe weeks to come.

The FBI is most likely interested in the activities of the reactionary militias that can be found there which is without a doubt a fair use of government resources. However, what about the roughly 2,000 people that live in that area – did the FBI determine that the residents of these locations are subject to a general warrant? What will happen to the data scooped up by whatever surveillance box is on-board? Will John Bunkerville later be prosecuted for a crime captured during these surveillance flights despite the fact he was not even the original target of N813JH and the agents aboard? How long can Susie Mesquite expect the FBI to hold onto her data and will there be any oversight in regards to what the FBI does with it, or any agency they share that information with?

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As the graphic above shows, Typhon specifically is a great surveillance utility when deployed in rural settings as the range drastically improves compared to usage in urban areas.

Will the public eventually be allowed to inspect the now presumably sealed court order (if any exist) that permits these flights? Is there any judicial oversight whatsoever for these investigative techniques? Will private contractors be allowed to analyze the “pattern of life” data on the unwitting human subjects below to glean some information that could be used to advance such technology or monetize systems? Possible answers to these questions can be found in Part II of this series.

Congratulations on making it this far. Reward yourself with a brief and accurate Hollywood (or rather Netflix) rendition of aerial surveillance – in this case conducted by the DEA another agency we broke aerial surveillance news about. This clip is courtesy of Narcos.

National Guard Surveillance Fleet Exposed – Operating in Violation of Federal Code

Aerial surveillance is not only being conducted by law enforcement agencies like the FBI but also the military. The National Guard is hereby exposed operating a fleet of highly capable C-26 surveillance aircraft. “Air Cerberus Inc.” is a non-existent company used solely for the purposes of registering seven aircraft. The company quite clearly traces back to the National Guard Bureau headquarters. A spy-plane belonging to the National Guard was active recently circling the Superbowl in California.

Air Cerb is Nat Guard

Registering aircraft to fake companies allegedly provides a measure of operational security according to the various agencies that employ the tactic. Cloaking aircraft in this way also ensures that operations continue without the knowledge and therefore scrutiny of the public. The decision to name their cover company after a mythological beast that guards the gates of the underworld, keeping the dead from escaping is alarming. Surveillance programs often have disturbing iconography.

Nat Guard Fleet

It is profound to come to the realization that the military is operating manned spy-planes domestically, and compounding that is the fact that this program is not in compliance with Federal mandates, and hasn’t been for at least four years. The Federal Aviation Administration and the US Code of Federal Regulations require all aircraft to maintain current registration, without which an aircraft is not considered airworthy. Operating an aircraft in this condition can result in prison time and hefty fines.

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faa felony airworthiness

The FAA takes this type of infraction very seriously as is evident from an earlier investigation of mine which resulted in an Orange County Sheriffs Department aircraft being grounded. Repeated requests for comment were ignored but more will be made. Further information will be published upon receipt of outstanding Freedom of Information Act requests. The FAA is working closely with North Star Post and is “very interested” in the domestic flight activity of the National Guard.

Thumb through the image gallery above, inside you’ll find key documents such as cancelled aircraft licensing, international flight activity and more

As if all of that was not enough, there is increasing use of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles spreading across the land. The EFF has reported on and been following those developments which have gone largely unnoticed minus the occasional blurb concerning the possible armament of such drones.

If the United States of America is not already a surveillance state we are rapidly becoming one, nudged along by proliferation of technology, and a frightening absence of informed dialogue, representation, transparency or accountability. As I wrote in my first article as a journalist; “the extent of these revelations should be alarming to anyone who has been paying attention to the growing web of surveillance and national security in the United States. It seems for now that we will have to wait patiently underneath a fleet fleets of secret government aircraft.”

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