We already know that there’s almost nowhere on earth you can go to escape the warrantless snooping and panoptic surveillance of the US government. Now it turns out you’re not even safe 30,000 feet up in the sky.
That’s the news buried in recent Federal Communications Commission filings about in-flight wifi company, Gogo. In those documents, first flagged by the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian, the FCC notes that Gogo worked with government officials to develop “capabilities to accommodate law enforcement interests” – capabilities that the agency says go “beyond those outlined” under federal law.
The details of this collaboration were discovered by Soghoian in a recent FCC rulemaking proposal, whose public comment window is now being extended. The FCC documents refer back to a little-noticed earlier correspondence (embedded below) between the agency and an attorney representing Gogo LLC, which describes itself as having “the largest number of online aircraft in service.” In a letter to the agency, Gogo’s counsel says (emphasis added):
In designing its existing network, Gogo worked closely with law enforcement to incorporate functionalities and protections that would serve public safety and national security interests. Gogo’s network is fully compliant with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (“CALEA”). The Commission’s ATG rules do not require licensees to implement capabilities to support law enforcement beyond those outlined in CALEA. Nevertheless, Gogo worked with federal agencies to reach agreement regarding a set of additional capabilities to accommodate law enforcement interests. Gogo then implemented those functionalities into its system design.
That declaration followed a statement from Gogo subsidiary Aircell, which previously boasted to an aviation trade magazine that the company “can give [law enforcement] any information they need in real time.”
CALEA already gives expansive powers to law enforcement agencies. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, “the FBI has used CALEA to expand its capabilities, turning wireless phones into tracking devices, requiring phone companies to collect specific signaling information for the convenience of the government, and allowing interception of packet communications without privacy protections.” The watchdog group notes that in 2005, “the Federal Communications Commission granted an FBI petition and expanded CALEA to broadband Internet access and VOIP services.”
By its own admission, Gogo has apparently gone even further than the surveillance statute requires, giving law enforcement officials even more potential power to monitor communications through its system. That power is buttressed by Gogo’s terms of service, which tell customers that using in-flight wifi authorizes Gogo to “disclose your Personal Information… if we believe in good faith that such disclosure is necessary” to “comply with relevant laws or to respond to subpoenas or warrants served on us” or to “protect or defend the rights, property, or safety of Gogo, you, other users, or third parties.”
The prospect of in-air surveillance has been a periodic controversy during the last few decades. Back in the early 1990s, for example, NBC News reported that French intelligence agencies were using Air France as a base for in-flight surveillance of U.S. businesspeople and government officials. More recently, the UK Telegraph reported that the European Union has been funding and testing surveillance systems on planes involving “a combination of cameras, microphones, explosive sniffers and a sophisticated computer system” to monitor passengers. Meanwhile, Gogo’s major competitor for in-flight wifi service is ViaSat, a defense contractor that specializes, in part, in surveillance.
According to Gogo’s own website, there are currently 2,000 Gogo-enabled aircraft, including planes belonging to American Airlines, Delta, United and U.S. Airways. The service is also fitted on every Virgin America aircraft, which might give ironic pause to the armies of tech execs who favor the San Francisco-based airline for its direct, wifi-enabled flights to tech centers like Seattle, San Jose and New York.
Late last year, the company announced plans to launch in-flight texting and calling services, potentially opening up a whole load of other data to the company’s law enforcement partners.
Pando contacted Gogo requesting comment about the company’s partnership with law enforcement agencies. We also asked for details about what new surveillance capabilities the company has developed that go beyond CALEA. In response, Gogo spokesperson Steve Nolan said via email: “What we are prepared to say is: Gogo does what all airborne connectivity companies have been asked to do from a security perspective, and it has nothing to do with monitoring traffic. Beyond that, we can’t comment beyond what’s in our public comments with the FCC.”
[Image: Spy in the Sky (1958) movie poster.]