Spies In The Skies

Spies In The Skies

Organisation: BuzzFeed News (United States)

Publication Date: 04/09/2016

Size of team/newsroom:large


Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on. BuzzFeed News assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December 2015, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation The FBI says it uses these planes to follow "terrorists, spies, and serious criminals.” But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays. We visualized the flight tracks using CartoDB, and animated individual flights using its Torque functionality. Our goal was to engage BuzzFeed's broad, largely youthful audience with this a form of surveillance that may previously have been unfamiliar. It was crucial that all aspects of the project performed optimally on mobile devices.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Other journalists had written about the FBI's aerial surveillance, but we wanted to reveal its true scope, and to extend the analysis to the Department of Homeland Security. We realized that they key to making this tangible for a broad audience was to present an extended time sequence of data in map form, simultaneously showing both cumulative tracks and an animation of all flights over time. The biggest challenge was in parsing and filtering a large dataset (several dozen Gigabytes) of transponder detections of all aircraft over the U.S. We did this using Python and R scripts. Having done this, we were able both to produce the desired map visualization, and to ask some key questions about the surveillance by analysis in R. Our finding that the surveillance consistently and significantly reduced on weekends and federal holidays challenges the FBI's assertion that these flights are urgently need to protect Americans from "terrorists, spies, and serious criminals". Our maps have also raised concerns about the targeting of this surveillance, particularly in areas with high Muslim populations.

Technologies used for this project:

We parsed the data from Flightradar24 (https://www.flightradar24.com/) using R (https://www.r-project.org/) and Python (https://www.python.org/). We performed the underlying analysis using R, and published the data and code and additional graphics here: https://buzzfeednews.github.io/2016-04-federal-surveillance-planes/analysis.html (see also We uploaded the data to CartoDB (https://cartodb.com/), and then created a new dataset of flight tracks from the individual aircraft transponder detections using a PostGIS (http://postgis.net/) query The published maps were made using the CartoDB.js (http://docs.cartodb.com/cartodb-platform/cartodb-js/) JavaScript library Static map graphics were made using QGIS (http://qgis.org/en/site/), together with its CartoDB (https://plugins.qgis.org/plugins/QgisCartoDB/) and Tile Map Scale Levels (https://plugins.qgis.org/plugins/TileMapScaleLevels/) plugins. Exported images of the daily flight tracks over San Bernardino after the Dec 2 terrorist attack were then converted to an animated GIF using ImageMagick (http://www.imagemagick.org/script/index.php). We also analyzed the Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness documentation for ~130 government planes using Overview (https://www.overviewdocs.com/), to confirm the modifications for surveillance, including equipment carried (https://www.overviewdocs.com/).
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