Bristow, just outside Washington, D.C.’s Beltway, has 65 planes registered there, the bulk of them small Cessna 182s registered to a handful of companies with two- or three-letter acronyms in their names, like LCB Leasing.
Zimmerman, who spotted the plane over Bloomington, said he pored through FAA records to find the call letters for each plane and then searched for images of them. He found photographs that show the planes outfitted with “external pods” that could house imagery equipment. He also found some of the planes modified with noise-muffling capability. That’s not common for a small plane, he said.
“The fact is there are several very powerful surveillance technologies that are deployed by fixed-wing aircraft circling over cities,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU. “These are powerful surveillance technologies that we think the public ought to have a role in discussing and debating.”
The planes use “persistent wide-area surveillance” to photograph large areas for hours at a time, Stanley said. The captured images allow authorities to go back in time, if necessary, to trace pedestrians and vehicles who come to their attention.
Other devices known as “dirtboxes,” “Stingrays” or “IMSI catchers” can capture cellphone data. Stanley said it’s still unclear what technologies have been used in the surveillance flights.
Zimmerman said he’s in favor of using technology to fight crime but criticized the government’s secretive approach, the same criticism that was leveled in Boston when a city made skittish by the marathon bombing had to wonder why planes were flying low overhead at night.
“Why don’t we just say these are official things, rather than clouding them in three-letter contract companies?” Zimmerman asked. “I would feel better if these guys just flew the colors. I think we would all be better off.”