The Corner

Law & the Courts

Sign You’re Doing Something Wrong: Front Companies

This doesn’t look shady at all.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology – all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

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

And it’s not just cameras.

Evolving technology can record higher-quality video from long distances, even at night, and can capture certain identifying information from cellphones using a device known as a “cell-site simulator” – or Stingray, to use one of the product’s brand names. These can trick pinpointed cellphones into revealing identification numbers of subscribers, including those not suspected of a crime.

So . . . warrantless, invasive surveillance (“The FBI does not generally obtain warrants to record video from its planes”) over American cities, generally with no judicial oversight, conducted through phony front companies set up specifically for the purpose of camouflaging FBI activities.

How is that legal? How is it permissible?

CIA setting up front companies to hide covert operations abroad? Business as usual, no objections, that’s what spooks do, and one hopes (alas . . .) that, given the splendid budgets and resources with which we provide them, they’d do it well enough to avoid detection by a couple of AP reporters. (Seriously: Nice work, AP!) That’s fine for spies. Domestic law enforcement doing the same thing at home? That is deeply worrisome. Any time a law-enforcement agency engages in a campaign of mass public deception, it’s almost certainly doing something wrong. Any time the cops feel the need to set up a phony front company, they should stop and take a deep breath, and maybe ask somebody: “What the hell are we up to, here, exactly?”

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