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Franken wants answers on FBI surveillance flights over Twin Cities

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Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is asking the FBI to explain why it's been flying surveillance planes over the Twin Cities in recent weeks.

Franken, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey Wednesday, asking for more information about the scope and legality of the surveillance, according to FOX 9.

The plane was seen recently circling several locations in the metro area, including downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America in Bloomington (the image at top shows one of its flight paths).

But its ownership and purpose were a mystery until a local blogger uncovered the truth – that the aircraft belonged to the FBI and was conducting surveillance.

The FBI confirmed to The Associated Press earlier this week that it has sent up to 100 airplanes flying over 30 cities in 11 states over a recent 30-day period.

The planes, which are registered under several different fake companies serving as a front for the government, are being used for specific “ongoing investigations.”

The aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and some of them carry technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans' privacy, according to the Associated Press.

“Many Americans have been troubled by these reports," Franken wrote in his letter. "And I believe it is important to ensure that these programs adequately protect Americans' privacy while furthering public safety and national security.”

Franken is asking for clarity on what data the surveillance technology is capable of collecting, how it's being used and how people's private information will be protected. (You can read his letter here.)

He also notes the surveillance systems might have the capability to block phone calls, including 911 and other emergency calls, and wants to know what the FBI is doing to ensure that phone calls of "non-targeted civilians" are not blocked.

Other politicians are also asking questions, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the Gazette in Cedar Rapids reports.

“No one finds fault with them for pursuing criminals,” Grassley said in a conference call with Iowa reporters, according to the Gazette. “Everyone expects them to protect us, but there are 4th Amendment privacy rights that we ought to guarantee that the law is being followed and the Constitution is being followed.”

MPR News blogger Bob Collins notes that it's legal for aircraft to spy on people on the ground under certain circumstances, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But that ruling came down in 1989, and doesn't address many of the questions being raised now by the FBI's use of these new surveillance technologies.

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