Turns out those conspiracy theories about black helicopters aren't entirely crazy after all.
A new Associated Press report revealed a plot worthy of The X-Files: The FBI is operating a fleet of mysterious surveillance planes, flying over American cities, collecting data for unknown purposes and hiding them behind a series of front companies designed to conceal their existence from the general public.
What the FBI is doing: According to the AP, the government agency appears to be "operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government."
The surveillance flights are generally done without judicial approval and are actually quite common. The AP found "the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country" in one 30-day period. A budget document the AP discovered referenced a fleet of at least 115 planes operating under 13 different companies.
The most mundane equipment the planes carry are high-resolution video cameras, which could be used to track criminal suspects, or monitor things the FBI finds interesting, like protests. Some also carry equipment that could be used into tricking cell phones into revealing subscriber information like identity and location.
One of these planes was especially active on April 30, during the Freddie Gray protests.
The AP also provided registration records for one of the aircraft. The records claim the plane belongs to Delaware company NG Research, which exists only on paper.
How they're justifying it: In a statement issued to media and reproduced by CNN, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said it's far from a secret the agency "routinely uses aviation assets in support of predicated investigations targeting specific individuals." He portrayed the use of the aircraft as a routine part of criminal investigations rather than a dubiously legal mass-surveillance tool, adding the Attorney General's office signs off on uses of the aircraft.
"Anytime you mask your activity for operational or safety reasons you use a front company," the statement read. "You don't want to put people on to what you're doing — we know we're going to need air aviation support for cases."
Still, news of mysterious planes collecting information on Americans hasn't pleased civil rights advocates. Senate Judiciary Committee members Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have recently questioned the Department of Justice on the legality of cellphone monitoring equipment federal agents use on the ground throughout the country.
In a post on the ACLU's website, senior policy analyst Jay Stanley argued the "sheer scope" of the hidden-from-public-view aerial program is "spooky." He also wrote that FBI claims the fleet is not designed for mass monitoring of Americans is a "good thing — but that is not the same thing as saying that data on masses of people is not being swept up."