Aviation buff John Zimmerman was at a weekly gathering of neighbors Friday night when he noticed something peculiar: a small plane circling a route overhead that didn't make sense to him.
It was dark, so a sightseeing flight didn't make sense, and when Zimmerman pulled up more information on an aviation phone app he routinely checks, he had immediate concerns.
The plane's flight path, recorded by the website flightradar24.com, would eventually show that it circled downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and Southdale Center at low altitude for hours starting at 10:30 p.m., slipping off radar just after 3 a.m.
"I thought, 'Holy crap,' " said Zimmerman.
Bearing the call sign N361DB, the plane is one of three Cessna 182T Skylanes registered to LCB Leasing of Bristow, Va., according to FAA records. The Virginia secretary of state has no record of an LCB Leasing. Virtually no other information could be learned about the company.
Zimmerman's curiosity might have ended there if it weren't for something he heard from his aviation network recently: A plane registered to NG Research — also located in Bristow — that circled Baltimore for hours after recent violent protests there was in fact an FBI plane that's part of a widespread but little known surveillance program, according to a report by the Washington Post.
Similar flights have since been spotted near Chicago, Boston and in California, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. – Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 29, 2015
There was a time in America when fear of government observation would get one accused of tinfoil-hat paranoia. Those days are gone. Thanks to Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, we know Big Brother is watching. The only question is how close.
The newest development is that Big Brother seems to have a secret air force. Mysterious, ostensibly private planes are loitering over major cities in the same way U.S. drones loiter over Pakistan.
Unlike drones, the observation planes are not armed with Hellfire missiles – at least so far as we know. This does not mean they are harmless. If they contain the same kind of advanced imagery equipment the military deploys overseas, the potential loss of privacy is breathtaking.
Big Brother watches at ground level, too. Earlier this year a Denver TV news station found hidden cameras in a post office parking lot. Disguised as utility equipment, the cameras could capture and record the license plates and facial features of postal patrons. The Postal Inspection Service admitted it had installed the devices but would not explain why.
Even local governments are getting in on the act. Paradise Valley, Arizona recently installed two dozen hidden cameras inside fake saguaro cactus plants. After initially refusing comment, officials said the cameras would read license plates to identify stolen cars. The faux cacti were purely aesthetic, they said.
Whatever the reason, it is safe to assume we are now under some kind of government surveillance almost every minute of the day. Exactly how the ubiquitous observation enhances national security or makes citizens any safer is unclear.
What if you don't like being watched? The government's answer, if it were willing to give one, would have to be, "Tough luck." Short of moving underground, staying off camera is practically impossible. Big Brother snaps your picture every time you drive on a public road or enter a public building.
If you want to smile for the camera, you'll have to smile all day.