In this photo taken May 26, 2015, a small plane flies near Manassas Regional Airport in Manassas, Va. The plane is among a fleet of surveillance aircraft by the FBI, which are primarily used to target suspects under federal investigation. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In the recent weeks a new meme has emerged centered around private aircraft circling the skies over many of the cities in the United States.  These aircraft which sometimes fly in circles for several hours have now been linked to a FBI domestic surveillance program.  The aircraft, which on the outside appear to be common private aircraft such as Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft, have been traced via there tail number to no less then 13 front companies including FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.  AP tracked at least 100 fights in 11 states including some 90 different aircraft in just one 30 day period. The FBI claims the aircraft are not being used for bulk intelligence gathering but only in a limited support capacity for cases already under investigation.  Now the question is, is that true? Maybe, though their true operational details are obviously classified.  Some of the recent locations AP tracked within the last 30 days are parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and Southern California.

One of the more interesting facets of this is that these aircraft tend to appear around areas of civil unrest including the recent riots which have plagued some of our larger cities due to excessive force.  Those riots, or even marches have been monitored by these aircraft, some of which are flying as low as 5000ft which is more then ow enough to snap photos of marchers and rioters.  Now on the surface that sounds like a good thing right?  Monitor a riot and help to suppress the lawlessness right?  Well yes and no.. the equipment onboard those aircraft is quite sophisticated and if activated does capture bulk intelligence.  In fact in just one fight AP tracked over Anaheim, California the aircraft would have observed some 40,000 people.

So what do these aircraft carry?  They obviously carry high resolution cameras inducing FLIR thermal and night vision equipment but more importantly they carry something called a cell site simulator. So what is that you ask?  A very good question – The cell site simulator is a hardware device carried in the aircraft or in a vehicle which can emulate a cell tower.  So everyone in the vicinity will have their cell phones automatically connect to it as a cell tower and it tracks all the connected phone numbers, carriers, and dialing metadata.  In English – if you are in Anaheim at Disneyland and your phone connects to one of these simulators belonging to an aircraft over head  the cell simulator logs your location, sent by your phone, your carrier, and if you place a call the destination of that call as well as the length.  Not its been denied but the actual audio of the communication is sent via the simulator as well so you could imagine the audio of the call is trapped as well. On the flip side there is also the question of the cameras.  The video and image output of those cameras can very easily be communicated back to FBI HQ in real time where powerful computers can do facial recognition and not only get a fairy accurate count of all people in a given area but also in most cases get a read on who they are by facial identification. If the aircraft is carrying powerful microphones it could also record your conversation for analysis and keyword searching.

So the next time you are hanging around the house and you see a Cessna 182 fly in low circles overhead you better wave cause Big Brother is probably watching AND listening to you!