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The FBI has a secret fleet of spy planes flying over the U.S.

Cessna 182T airplane

Adrian Pingstone/Wikimedia Commons

Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No—it’s the feds.

The FBI maintains a secret fleet of airplanes that it uses to capture video and intercept cellphone communications, according to the Associated Press.

To hide its activities from public view, the bureau registers fake companies and launches planes using these shell corporations. The AP was able to identify 13 front companies created by the FBI, including FVX Research, KQM Aviation, and NBR Aviation.

An AP review found that, over one 30-day period, the FBI flew surveillance flights over more than 30 cities across the country. An FBI spokesperson told the AP in a statement that the existence of the agency’s aviation program isn’t a secret; however, the details of each aircraft and its flights are confidential.

The statement added that the flights are not involved in the bulk collection of electronic communications data that is in the news right now due to debate over the USA Patriot Act. However, some of the planes are equipped with IMSI catchers, a piece of equipment that can identify and track the movements of cellphone users by impersonating the towers to which all phones connect.

Amid the recent unrest in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the FBI partnered with local law-enforcement agencies to operate surveillance flights over the city. The FBI confirmed to the Washington Post that the agency was responsible for mysterious flights spotted over Baltimore.

One Reddit user reported a plane with the same identification number flying over Northern Virginia last year. The same aircraft’s frequent flights over the city of Quincy, Mass., were the subject of a 2013 Boston Globe op-ed calling for increased transparency. 

On Monday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey, calling on bureau officials to release information about the flights—specifically the ones over the Baltimore protests. Asking for a briefing sometime prior to June 12, Grassley requested information about “(1) the scope, nature, and purpose of these operations; (2) what types of surveillance equipment were used in the operations, if not cell-site simulators; and (3) what legal authorities, if any, are being relied upon in carrying out these operations.”

Update 4pm CT, June 2: Added information about Sen. Grassley’s letter to the FBI.

H/T Associated Press | Photo by Adrian Pingstone/Wikimedia Commons (PD)

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.