Anyone relieved that the NSA cellphone record collection has expired will find a new surveillance issue to be concerned about with this new, frightening report from the AP: The FBI has a fleet of at least 115 airplanes equipped with cameras and cellphone surveillance technology, flown under the cover of fake companies set up by the government.

Reports the AP:

U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.

Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The FBI also has been careful not to reveal its surveillance flights in court documents.

“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” Allen added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance

When the AP confronted the FBI about knowledge of this program, the FBI acknowledged it but more or less said, “Don’t worry about it, bro, nothing shady is going on.” But if that’s the case, then why isn’t this a publicly acknowledged program? Why are the planes equipped with the sort of surveillance technology that lets you spy on large groups of people? And why is the government setting up fake companies to run these things? Forgive us if, after the NSA, we’re all a little bit wary…

But the planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.

Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they’re not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers into coughing up basic subscriber information, is rare.

The AP notes that there have been more “more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.”

The worst part about this report is that there doesn’t seem like much recourse. The FBI told the AP that if they run the story, the government agency may have to launch several new fake companies to protect the planes and integrity of the mission — paid for, of course, by taxpayers.

(Photo: nate q)