A secret spy plane operated by the US Marshals hunted drug cartel kingpins in Mexico. A military contractor that tracks terrorists in Africa is also flying surveillance aircraft over US cities. In two stories published last week, BuzzFeed News revealed the activities of aircraft that their operators didn’t want to discuss.
These discoveries came not from tip-offs from anonymous sources, but by training a computer to recognize known spy planes, then setting it loose on large quantities of flight-tracking data compiled by the website Flightradar24.
Here’s how we did it.
Surveillance aircraft often keep a low profile: The FBI, for example, registers its planes to fictitious companies to mask their true identity.
So BuzzFeed News trained a computer to find them by letting a machine-learning algorithm sift for planes with flight patterns that resembled those operated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Last year, we reported on aerial surveillance by these planes, mapping thousands of flights over more than four months from mid-August to the end of December 2015.