FBI Spy Planes Are Using Augmented Reality To Watch America

A startling find by BuzzFeed

A Department Of Homeland Security Airplane
A Department Of Homeland Security Airplane
This is a Cessna Citation II 550United States Customs and Border Protection

America's sky is a public resource, and full of vital information. To make sure airplanes don't collide into one another, they broadcast their locations, which are then tracked publicly online, in places like Flightradar24. From mid-August to the end December last year, BuzzFeed News analyzed the flights of 200 aircraft identified as federally owned and operated, and found a curious pattern of government surveillance: the tech behind it is powerful, and the number of flights drop off during the weekend.

From BuzzFeed News (emphasis added):

Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras,often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on.

A large amount of this information is public in some form, like the names registered to addresses and streets, and some of it is public in a way most people will never access, like photography taken from above 400 the feet (a legal precedent set by Florida v Riley). Put together, this gives the government a tremendous amount of surveillance ability, from an angle not really available to anyone else. And it's done with regular aircraft, Cessnas and helicopters, that won't stand out against the sky as much as a drone. When combined with augmented reality, it means they're getting a fuller picture than anything imaginable outside of fiction.

BuzzFeed's report is worth reading in full, and people are already poring over the publicly available data to see what, exactly, our government was watching. So far the answers appears to be mostly mosques.