A small airplane recently spotted circling several Twin Cities locations, including the Mall of America, has been identified as part of a fleet of FBI surveillance planes flying over targets across the country.

The flight path and ownership records of the plane in Minneapolis made it conspicuous to aviation buffs, and a Star Tribune story last week compared it to known surveillance flights by single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft over other cities.

The link was confirmed in an Associated Press investigation published Tuesday that said the FBI has been operating scores of planes carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology. The planes are registered to fictitious companies set up by the government.

The Cessna 182T Skylane that circled downtown Minneapolis and then the megamall for several hours on a recent night is among those traced back to the FBI by Associated Press reporters. The plane, N361DB, was modified with a German-made silencing muffler and carries an infrared surveillance camera, according to government records obtained by the Star Tribune.

The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations, according to the Associated Press. The agency said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so those on the ground don’t know they’re being watched by the FBI.

The flights come at a time of national debate over government surveillance, with Congress recently changing some government surveillance powers and putting an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records.

During the past few weeks, the Associated Press tracked planes from the FBI’s fleet on more than 100 flights over at least 11 states plus the District of Columbia, most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. The FBI confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which reporters traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, PXW Services and LCB Leasing, all based in Bristow, Va. The plane in Minneapolis is registered to LCB Leasing. At least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were mentioned in a federal budget document from 2009.

The FBI is not the only federal law enforcement agency to take such measures.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has its own planes, also registered to fake companies, according to a 2011 Justice Department inspector general report. At the time, the DEA had 92 aircraft in its fleet. And since 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service has operated an aerial surveillance program with its own fleet that can capture data from thousands of cellphones, the Wall Street Journal reported last year.

In the FBI’s case, one of its fake companies shares a post office box with the Justice Department, creating a link between the companies and the FBI through publicly available Federal Aviation Administration records.

Basic aspects of the FBI’s program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department. The FBI also has been careful not to reveal its surveillance flights in court documents. The agency will not say how many planes are currently in its fleet.

Dozens of local flights

The surveillance plane in Minneapolis first came to the Star Tribune’s attention when aviation buff John Zimmerman e-mailed a reporter last month to say he had seen an unusual plane and suspected it was doing surveillance.

“It was way too easy,” Zimmerman said Tuesday afternoon. “Within two minutes, I figured out who these guys were and roughly what they were doing. If I could figure it out in two minutes, the bad guys could figure it out in one.”

Zimmerman said the plane actually flew over his home one day last week, and he also saw it “orbiting” the site of the former Lincoln High School in Bloomington.

The first time Zimmerman saw the plane was during a nighttime flight that lasted 5 ½ hours as it circled downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and Southdale Center dozens of times. The plane made nearly 20 flights in May, with its most recent flight taking place on Monday, according to the tracking service Flightradar24. It’s unclear how many of the flights were in the Twin Cities area.

The plane’s infrared camera includes an augmented reality system that feeds address and parcel information to the pilot; both systems are made by Paravion Technology of Fort Collins, Colo., according to FAA records.

Mall of America spokesman Dan Jasper said the mall had no comment about the flights. Mike Hartley, Bloomington deputy police chief, said the department did not receive any information from the FBI on flights over the mall.

In Minneapolis, the office of Mayor Betsy Hodges urged transparency.

“The mayor believes that federal agencies must strike a balance between protecting Minnesotans and safeguarding our right to privacy; transparency plays a key role in that balance,” said Hodges’ spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff. “The apparent lack of transparency surrounding this flight program raises questions about whether this balance is being appropriately struck.”

Aerial surveillance, in and of itself, is not illegal, said William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor and privacy expert.

“The general understanding would be that the Fourth Amendment wouldn’t put a limit on this kind of surveillance,” he said. “The logic is, it’s only looking at things out in plain view.” For example, aerial overflights have been used for decades to spot illegal marijuana fields, McGeveran said. But the use of high-resolution and infrared cameras may go beyond what earlier generations of judges found acceptable, he said.

“That happens with technology development,” McGeveran said. “You get a [legal] rule that’s tied to one type of technology, and as the technology advances, the rule stays the same. And that leads to, frankly, mismatches.” McGeveran said the law on capturing cellphone signals is even more in flux. Minnesota has passed a law requiring warrants for the use of “Stingray” devices that capture cellphone signals, but federal law is less clear.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. john.reinan@startribune.com 612-673-7402

matt.mckinney@startribune.com 612-673-7329