How “Spies in the Skies” Came to Be

Two journalists tracked U.S. government planes spying on the country.

Screengrab of data showing FBI and DHS planes flying over New York City the day Pope Francis visited on September 25, 2015. (Upstart City via Peter Aldhous/Buzzfeed News)

In April 2016, Charles Seife and Peter Aldhous released “Spies in the Skies,” an article detailing four months of tracked U.S. government planes circling cities all around the country. The planes, operated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), fly approximately a mile above the ground and are equipped with mufflers to ensure conspicuity and high-resolution video cameras. Some also have cell phone trackers. The award winning data piece shed light on this previously un-scrutinized government reconnaissance.

The interest for the project stemmed from Seife and Aldhous’s shared interest in data journalism and surveillance. Aldhous is a reporter at Buzzfeed News and an investigative and policy reporting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Seife, currently a Graduate Studies Director and journalism professor at New York University, previously worked at the National Security Association. His time there fueled his curiosity in government information gathering and grew further when NSA surveillance disclosures came to light. “It really shook me because it was very different from the NSA I had experienced,” Seife said, referencing the 2005 revelations of the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying.

The real catalyst for the project, though, was the June 2015 Associated Press story connecting 50 Cessna planes with 13 FBI-created front companies. The pair, who have worked together since the 90s, immediately knew they could expand on the story with their combined backgrounds. The two began by setting up local detectors around their houses in New York City and San Francisco, to find aircrafts to observe. Not surprisingly, the detectors led to a rapid influx of data.

Expanding the project, they reached out to existing databases like Flightradar24 to access their Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast signals, the surveillance technology that makes planes traceable.

The data was observed for four months because that was the maximum possible timeframe Flightradar24 could share its data for free. The pair, however, did not need more. That four-month period at the end of 2015 saw Pope Francis’ D.C., New York and Philadelphia tour and the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks, making for an informative dataset.

It wasn’t only planes being tracked, however. The project utilized databases and public documents from the Federal Aviation Administration, flight records and local Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA). They listened to air traffic control discussions as planes landed in order to identify them. Seife and Aldhous even successfully requested a landing and refueling FOIA. “When a FOIA request comes back, there’s this joy, like it’s Christmas,” Seife said.

Not many human sources were part of the process, though. Those that were mainly consisted of people that providing information on the FBI and DHS’s capabilities and merely speculate about their operations.

The limited responses they were able to garner from the FBI and DHS, however, were contradictory to the data the team was accumulating. The FBI claimed that their flights aren’t mass surveillance operations yet Seife noticed the major drop-off in weekend flights and on holidays like Thanksgiving, suggesting a lack of urgency if breaks can be taken. No investigations can target a racial, ethnic or religious group according to FBI rules. But the pair observed a pattern of scrutiny for Muslim American communities. “The best we can do is say that they say this and we see this and put it to them to explain,” Seife said.

Another challenge for the team was managing the “dirtiness of the data.” What Seife initially believed to be drones around airports as part of the surveillance scheme, for example, turned out to be mismatched data causing blips to appear.

Plotting the data, Seife explains the patterns they noticed like the high concentrations of Muslim Americans being monitored. Towns with large populations of Afghani and Somali Muslim communities in San Francisco and Minneapolis, for instance, were being scrutinized.

“I thought it was going to be a story with the headline “FBI Spying on Muslim Americans,”’ said Seife. And while they noticed some flights clearly target these populations, proving that was difficult because of the missing link between what the data showed and what inside sources could confirm.

Even with a different headline, the article was successful. It recently won the Global Editors Network 2016 Data Journalism Award for Data Visualization of the Year as it shed some much needed light on government surveillance. Regardless, the pair knew they were “spotting way more than anyone else knew about” and have further stories to write when the time allows for it.