June 5, 2015
It should have surprised no one that the FBI has a secret fleet of spy planes it uses domestically to watch us, as the Associated Press reported this week.
WIRED published a story about surveillance aircraft spotted flying in unusual patterns in California and Virginia back in 2006.
And the Wall Street Journal reported last year that the U.S. Marshall's Service has surveillance planes that use so-called "dirtboxes" to track mobile phone users on the ground.
But long before this, the New York Police Department had a high-tech helicopter that it obtained in 2003 through a government grant and exposed publicly to the media that year when it gave journalists a tour of the $10 million dollar toy.
WIRED began investigating the chopper in 2008, and uncovered, but hasn't published until now, information about the precise surveillance components installed on it and the methods the NYPD used to conceal it's ownership and operation.
Like the FBI, the NYPD used a shell company to register the aircraft.
But the NYPD also requested special "undercover" registration handling from the FAA to thwart tracking by aviation enthusiasts who might spot it in the air and attempt to investigate the registration number associated with it.
The NYPD also asked the FAA to notify it's aviation unit if anyone contacted the agency inquiring about the aircraft.
Last month, the use of secret law enforcement aircraft began getting attention after plane spotters around the country began reporting suspicious aircraft registered to shell companies that were flying unusual routes over numerous cities.
The Associated Press caught on to the stories and this week published it's own piece identifying some 50 surveillance craft that were registered to more than a dozen shell companies.and were being used by FBI field offices around the country.
The response to that story has been mixed.
Some readers were shocked by the secret flights and Big Brother surveillance; others scoffed at the alarm the AP appeared to be inciting, arguing that spy planes are just another surveillance tool law enforcement uses to monitor suspects in areas, or for lengths of time, they couldn't otherwise monitor through conventional means by foot or car.
For example, authorities used a special surveillance helicopter with thermal imaging equipment in 2013 to spot the Boston Marathon bomber as he lay hidden beneath a tarp covering a stored boat.
But regardless of the utility of high-tech surveillance aircraft, their use raises serious questions about how many agencies are operating them in the U.S. and how exactly they're being used and to what end.
The AP story didn't provide much detail about the technology aboard the FBI planes, other than to note that some carry imaging systems that can capture "video from long distances, even at night," while others have stingrays or dirtboxes on board to capture cellphone signals.
But detailed information about what the NYPD has on board it's spy copter is available and can serve to further enlighten.
The New York Police Department is the nation's largest local law enforcement agency, and it generally leads the way in acquisition of modern equipment.
Where it goes, the rest of the country tends to follow.
So an examination of it's aerial surveillance capabilities can be instructive for understanding what other law enforcement agencies around the country may be using.
The NYPD's surveillance activities can also be instructive for another reason.
The department has repeatedly been criticized for it's over-zealous spy programs --including at least one documented case involving it's spy copter.
So concerns about abuse of such aircraft is not unfounded.
The public first learned about the NYPD's Bell 412EP surveillance helicopter in 2003 when a regional New York newspaper published a small story unveiling the recently purchased $9.8 million "jewel."
The specially modified chopper, which the department kept parked at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, was unmarked -- meaning it carried no insignia identifying it as law enforcement aircraft.
Acquired through a Justice department grant, it was customized with a photo-and-video-surveillance system capable of capturing clear images of license plates -- or the faces of individuals -- from 1,000 feet away.
It could even, the story noted, "pick up the catcher's signals at Yankee Stadium."
It was described as the "most advanced in use by any police force" at the time, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly noted that it would be used to fight conventional crime, conduct search-and-rescue missions and "play a key role in anti-terrorism efforts."
The NYPD referred to the helicopter only as "23" -- a reference to the number of police officers killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- and initially the aircraft had no registration number printed on it's tail or side.'
In later investigating the aircraft, WIRED learned that in 2003 the NYPD asked the FAA to change the original registration number from N2411X to a special one containing the "23" reference -- N23FH (believed to be a reference to "23 fallen Heroes").
NYPD Deputy Inspector Joseph Gallucci also wrote the FAA at the time asking that the registration be handled in an "undercover" manner, and that "any inquiries to the registration number be flagged" and referred to Robert Kikel in the NYPD's Aviation Unit.
WIRED obtained documents for the aircraft only after learning the original registration number and filing a FOIA request to the FAA.
Five years after that 2003 story was published, the public learned more about the technology installed on the helicopter from an Associated Press article published in 2008.
That piece described three flat-screen monitors onboard that were displaying Statue of Liberty sightseers from a mile and a half away.
It also described the high-powered camera, mounted in a turret below the chopper's nose, that had infrared night-vision capabilities and satellite navigation to zoom in on any address typed into it's computer.
The system could beam live footage to police command centers below or to wireless devices in the hands of police commanders in the field.
The helicopter had been used, the story noted, to track fleeing suspects and to patrol the skies during a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to New York.
A privacy advocate interviewed for the story raised concerns about how the helicopter might be abused, but John Diazo, crew chief for the aircraft, replied: "Obviously, we're not looking into apartments....We don't invade the privacy of individuals..We only want to observe anything that's going on in public."