Privacy SOS

FBI surveillance planes warrantlessly track cell phones across major cities nationwide: report

Building off of information obtained by an independent reporter, AP today published an investigation revealing the FBI uses fake shell companies based in Virginia to cover up the tracks of its fleet of surveillance planes. The planes use high tech video surveillance and cell phone tracking equipment, also known as stingrays, to monitor thousands across major cities throughout the United States, the AP report reveals. The FBI admits it does not obtain probable cause warrants before flying the cell phone tracking equipment above our homes, places of worship, and medical facilities, among other sensitive locations.

In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country….During the past few weeks, the AP tracked planes from the FBI's fleet on more than 100 flights over at least 11 states plus the District of Columbia, most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. These included parts of Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Southern California.

While an FBI spokesman told AP the bureau doesn't use its fleet of surveillance planes to conduct dragnet or bulk spying, the use of a stingray in a plane almost certainly results in just that. The planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance," the spokesman said. That's very difficult to believe, because of how cell site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers, work.

Officials say cellphone surveillance is rare, although the AP found in recent weeks FBI flights orbiting large, enclosed buildings for extended periods where aerial photography would be less effective than electronic signals collection. Those included above Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

After The Washington Post revealed flights by two planes circling over Baltimore in early May, the AP began analyzing detailed flight data and aircraft-ownership registrations that shared similar addresses and flight patterns. That review found some FBI missions circled above at least 40,000 residents during a single flight over Anaheim, California, in late May, according to Census data and records provided by the website

Amidst the Patriot Act reauthorization debate, it's important to remember that the FBI and other government agencies use many different powers and technologies to spy on us, often without warrants. These planes are just one example of a sprawling surveillance state that won't be meaningfully reined in by even the most drastic reforms to those specific Patriot Act provisions currently being debated.

In November 2014, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the US Marshals service has its own fleet of surveillance planes. That agency uses cell phone spying equipment called DIRTBOXES to suck up vast quantities of information about Americans, the report showed. In response to these revelations, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey demanded information from the Department of Justice about federal law enforcement's use of the controversial cell phone tracking equipment. Maybe it's time for another round of those letters, Senator.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.