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For six straight days in the middle of March, a small twin-propeller plane flew over Phoenix. Each evening, it picked two or three spots and circled for hours, flying at more than 17,000 feet. The plane was loaded with sophisticated surveillance equipment, including technology developed by the National Security Agency to track cell phones.

In June of last year, that same plane spent three weeks circling daily over Wilmington, North Carolina, carrying a state-of-the-art “persistent surveillance” camera that can monitor a large area continuously for hours at a time.