FBI forced to release 18 hours of spy plane footage: “Paging Mr Orwell …”

FBI spy planes



Eric De Grasse
Chief Technology Officer


9 August 2016 – Just back from Black Hat and DEF CON in Las Vegas, to find a welcome story :-) ….

It’s been just over a year since amateur aviation sleuths first revealed the FBI’s secret aerial surveillance of the civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland. Now, in response to a FOIA request from the ACLU, the Bureau has released more than 18 hours of aerial footage from the Baltimore protests captured by their once-secret spy planes, which regularly fly in circles above major cities and are commonly registered to fake companies.

The cache is likely the most comprehensive collection of aerial surveillance footage ever released by a US law enforcement agency. The footage shows the crowds of protesters captured in a combination of visible light and infrared spectrum video taken by the planes’ wing-mounted FLIR Talon cameras … military-qualified and used by CIA drones in the Middle East; not available on Amazon … yet :-)

While individual faces are not clearly visible in the videos, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine how cameras with a slightly improved zoom resolution and face recognition technology could be used to identify protesters in the future. The FBI says they’re “only” using the planes to track specific suspects in serious crime investigations, according to the article, which adds that

“the FBI flew their spy planes more than 3,500 times in the last six months of 2015, according to a Buzzfeed News analysis of data collected by the aircraft-tracking site FlightRadar24.”

Note: 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. I learned more at Black Hat and will follow-up in another post.

Also, the FBI is not exactly telling all. 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 feet.

NOTE TO THE LAWYERS READING THIS: as our boss, Gregory Bufithis, noted in a client briefing note to our clients earlier this year, there is 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.

And as to the increased facial recognition technology, buried in a GAO (Government Accounting Office) report on the FBI this past June we found out about a much larger surveillance program, run by “the criminal justice information services division of the FBI (CJIS), called Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation, or Face” and what they do is “conduct face recognition searches that can access external partners’ face recognition systems [note: vendors were not named] to support FBI active investigations”. In the business this is called Next Generation Identification (NGI) and several vendors at Black Hat indicated they were developing such NGI for several “U.S. law enforcement agencies”.

But for me the show-stoppers in the GAO report was:

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation has access to as many as 411.9 million images as part of its face-recognition database [from State authorities]. The bulk of those images are photographs of people who have committed no crime.”


“… [there is a] question of the accuracy of the comparisons between photos of suspects and photos of law-abiding citizens used by the FBI for criminal investigations. The FBI has done very minimal testing on the accuracy of their internal system.”

So … basically … what they’re saying is it’s highly inaccurate, yes?  And as the database gets larger, won’t the accuracy go down?

I get it. The reason state governments currently keep detailed facial recognition databases from driver’s licenses is to stymie identity theft and other crimes. So data that’s being collected for one purpose is being used for a very different purpose.

So it’s one thing to develop a system that is made to detect fraud. If you have a false positive in a fraud situation, that may mean that somebody has to come down to the DMV and provide further information before they get their new driver’s license. That’s a pain.  BUT …. it’s not equivalent to being arrested and having to explain yourself to a law enforcement officer while you’re sitting in jail.

Now, Mr Orwell, about your quote “we shall be in the place where there is no darkness” ….

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