How the FBI’s aerial surveillance program was unmasked

The Associated Press got a lot of credit — deservedly so — for its story this week that the plane flying over Minneapolis last week (and planes flying over other cities) are part of an FBI surveillance operation.

But much of the credit for the revelation goes to John Wiseman of Los Angeles and Sam Richards of Minneapolis, who were suspicious enough to start asking questions (and getting answers) while most mainstream media was still disinterested.

How’d they do it?

Wiseman, an engineer, describes his investigation in an Ars Technica post.

It started, he acknowledges, with the Washington Post’s revelation that a plane had been circling Baltimore in the aftermath of the civil strife there.

He also used nuggets of information from several online forums, which he acknowledges “were usually conspiracy/paranoia/gun rights types of sites.”

“But maybe they were right this time,” he thought.

They were, once Wiseman was able to separate the valuable nuggets of information from the online noise. He found the transponder codes the planes were emitting to air traffic control.

Then he rigged up his own surveillance system.

For fun I planespot/radarspot/whatever. I have a little software defined radio dongle that I use to pick up aircraft transponder pings. I can pick up aircraft from all over the Los Angeles basin with it. I log up to one ping per second per aircraft in a database. You can see more information about the setup and information I can receive at this page: Tracking Aircraft Over Los Angeles.

Since I had two months worth of transponder pings at this point, including transponder squawk codes and callsigns, I checked to see if there was anything to it.

Of the 15,000 or so aircraft I had tracked, I found 8 that had used 4414/4415, and one with a JENNA callsign—that also had squawked 4414. And they were all registered to generically named companies. I felt like there might be something to this.

He enlisted the ACLU for additional help, then found that Sam Richards in Minneapolis was also pursuing what was happening above.

They found the number of planes registered to phony companies as a front for the FBI was much larger than originally thought.

It’s a great story on many fronts, and a reminder of the power of sharing nuggets of information online to shine a light on those who’d rather operate in the darkness.