North Star Post, BuzzFeed & Media Coverage of Aerial Surveillance

North Star Post, BuzzFeed & Media Coverage of Aerial Surveillance

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Let’s be clear here. This is not an attack on BuzzFeed – it’s an over-due defense of our publication and independent media in general. Part of my job as Editor-in-Chief of this publication is to provide a defense against those that would like the credit for our work and to call out those that would try and use their reach unjustly.

Read the full interview by Emily Bell.

Given those criticisms, let’s begin our analysis of the time-line and media coverage surrounding the ‘FBI Sky Spies’ and domestic aerial surveillance overall.

BuzzFeed on April 6th, 2016, published an article titled “Spies in the Skies.” Sound familiar? NSP and the Twitter-sphere sure thought so. What followed was an article on government aerial surveillance focusing mostly on the FBI. The article prominently featured a map showing the whereabouts of the FBI aerial surveillance fleet from late August to late December of 2015. Something NSP had been doing as a public service since disclosing these operations.

Not only had we been reporting on government aerial surveillance for nearly a year before BuzzFeed, we have received data through FOIA appeals with the FBI. Those familiar with that grueling process will have a greater understanding of just how long we’ve been reporting on these topics.

People that fear they are targeted for surveillance contact us occasionally to request more information. We typically do not reply since there is reasonable fear of prosecution from stepping over that line, but this demonstrates the far reaching spread of our reporting, and the level of trust people have in our accuracy.

Is it because we get less web traffic than BuzzFeed so they thought no one would notice? That shouldn’t matter since our investigations have spread far enough to have caught the attention of one of their coauthors long before they published anything on FBI aerial surveillance.

Charles Seife followed my twitter on July 29th of last year. Since that time, North Star Post under my direction has published the vast majority of our coverage and findings in the form of exposés, interactive maps, government documents, podcasts, etc.

Here are the articles that talk about either aerial surveillance or specifically the ‘FBI Sky Spies’ that we published after Seife began following me (and before their piece):

Tracking the ‘FBI Sky Spies’
FBI Flew Surveillance Aircraft Over 22 U.S. Cities in Seven Days, July 28 – Aug 3
FBI Aerial Surveillance Flight Data
FBI Sky Spies Weekly Update [Aug 4-10]
FBI Sky Spies Weekly Update [Aug 11-17]
FBI Sky Spies Weekly Update [Aug 18-24]
FBI Sky Spies Flew Surveillance Aircraft 143 Times First Week of September
FBI Sky Spies Flew 115 Times From Sept. 8th – 14th
FBI Flew 46 Surveillance Aircraft in Seven Days over American Cities
FBI Surveillance Plane Circled Arizona I10 Shooting Suspect’s Apartment
[Podcast] ‘ICYMI’ #1 – FBI Sky Spies
FBI Continues to Operate Spy-planes Without Warrants Despite Federal Rule Change
FBI Spy-planes Used for Counter-drug Investigations
Examining the Power of Aerial Surveillance Part I (This article exposed the military domestic aerial surveillance occurring over the Superbowl among other locations and proves it is being done in violation of the law, similar to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department story below).
FOIA Confirms Lawless Nature of FBI Sky Spies
FBI Aviation and Policy Guide Sheds Light on Aerial Surveillance
Investigations Raise Constitutional, Legal Concerns Over Aerial Surveillance
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Aircraft Fleet
DEA Operating Warrantless Surveillance Aircraft Fleet Over U.S. and Abroad

Seife told me over a twitter direct message when questioned about these issues, “[W]e became aware of your site later…” For the sake of context, prior to Seife following me on Twitter, I published the information below – which it’s reasonable to assume caught his attention and gave him a reason to follow me… why else would he?

FBI Surveillance Aircraft Master-list
Fleet of Government Aircraft Flying Secret Missions Over U.S. Cities
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Operation Surveillance Aircraft Illegally (This story resulted in a surveillance aircraft being grounded by the FAA).
Florida Fusion Center Operating Aircraft Covertly Behind Front Company

Just a few days after Seife began following me I moved my original FBI pastebin to this website, turned the tail numbers into links and encouraged readers to track the FBI on their own. This post included the 100 FBI tail numbers I discovered and published on May 26th of last year.

We continued to update the public on a weekly basis about where the FBI had been the previous seven days. Our maps were not as fancy as the one put together much later on by BuzzFeed, but they were interactive, informative and it’s not difficult to see how they could have been the inspiration for the main feature of BuzzFeed’s report. Most of our web traffic in those days came from these nifty maps. Here is one of the maps used in a weekly report:


Even the focus they gave to the aerial surveillance in regards to the San Bernadino shooting was something I and other discussed prominently on Twitter.

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the content we chose diligently to feature – and support by featuring – was seemingly mirrored. This includes links to news items and specific documents made public by the ACLU, EFF, The Intercept (specifically their ‘Surveillance Catalog’), and more.

Besides the qualifications and clarifications about the true time-line of public knowledge on FBI and other aerial surveillance operations; some very critical aspects of this whole aerial surveillance question were soft-balled which has a negative impact on much needed public scrutiny, namely the use of cell-phone surveillance and the power of the optics on-board these aircraft.

Being ripped off in such a way – after having stuck my neck out as an independent journalist with no budget, nor organization backing me to expose a notorious federal agency’s surveillance operation – is the journalistic equivalent of being spat on.

Even their choice of the title “Spies in the skies” is questionable given just how long FBI Sky Spies has been in the public lexicon – as a twitter hashtag that people frequently use and elsewhere. Searching “FBI Sky Spies” or “Spies in the Skies” is unsurprisingly nearly interchangeable. Maybe it’s a testament to how much work we’ve put into this subject; but I was shocked to find that despite the hugely unequal web-presence between BuzzFeed and North Star Post, we remain on top of the Google search results.

The initial drama with the Associated Press is understandable given the timing of their piece around a week after my article, pastebin and tweets went viral online. That particular snafu shows that they had been working on it previously and I simply published my findings, the tail numbers and identified the FBI being behind it in tweets and on pastebin before they could finish theirs.

My disclosures received accolades from heroic journalist Glenn Greenwald, something that I believe helped spread the story much further. Thanks again, Glenn! He also shared the link to my story (which remember had the link to the 100 tail numbers on the pastebin and named the FBI) on the same day the Associated Press published their first FBI Sky Spies piece.

The aforementioned circumstances and timing of BuzzFeed’s entrance to the topic nearly a year after those initial exposés and their decision to pretend as if their organization was the only brave enough to touch this issue was called out by Associated Press Editor Ted Bridis. Bridis and his team spread the news of the FBI Sky Spies far and wide.

The Associated Press has been covering this topic and I would boldly state AP has a much greater journalistic reputation than BuzzFeed. Therefore, the inevitable argument over web-presence is moot.

This reaction comes not from some petty desire to get attention but from the same yearning for justice that fuels our (mostly uncompensated) reporting. Our ‘Code of Ethics’ demands that we call out media sources for unprincipled behavior.

Our reporting has literally grounded surveillance aircraft so BuzzFeed, you can not possibly say that little has been done on this subject. Furthermore, we’ve even exposed illegal aerial surveillance activity by the United States military very near your headquarters that you have yet to report on.

We have many more stories to write and several of our investigations are in the home stretch. Stay tuned people – but if you do happen to miss something I’m sure you’ll be able to read about it next year on BuzzFeed.

Here are a few links to media coverage that came directly from my work on aerial surveillance:

Pioneer Press
CBS Minnesota
Mint Press News
Houston Chronicle
Minnesota Public Radio
Fox Minnesota
Fox Minnesota

Thanks to everyone who had my back and continue to support the work of all of us at North Star Post. Your backing and assistance in raising the public discourse is critical to the eventual reigning in of these programs and the Surveillance State as a whole.

Here is a small round-up of some of the tweets. Please note the dates and the not insignificant number of retweets.


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