Privacy SOS

Are those FBI planes over Quincy? Bureau won’t say

Image credit: Flying Eye

In a piece about the mysterious surveillance flights that have been happening over Quincy, MA ever since the Boston Marathon attacks, Boston Globe opinion writer Lawrence Harmon tried to get answers from the FBI about whether the planes belong to it, and if so, what they are doing. He didn’t get any answers, but an FBI official in Boston told him something very interesting pertaining to aerial surveillance:

Special agent Greg Comcowich of the Boston FBI office said that the agency follows strict guidelines, including the securing of warrants based on probable cause, whether conducting its investigations on land or in the air. But general surveillance of people and vehicles in public spaces entails no such requirements.

Hear that? The FBI says it gets warrants to do aerial surveillance….when it is investigating someone specific. But the FBI official says that when there's no specific target, agents are free to monitor the public at will, no warrant required.

That’s a bit confusing, and reflects the state of our woefully inadequate surveillance law — a problem exacerbated by the rise of the drone. Luckily for us, a bill currently before the Massachusetts state legislature would require warrants for drone surveillance.

Want to spy from the sky? Get a warrant. Otherwise, take a hike.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.