Russia flies spy planes over our heads multiple times a year — and the US is cool with it

The World
Russia President Vladimir Putin makes a statement in Moscow region, Russia, February 22, 2016.

Russia President Vladimir Putin makes a statement in Moscow February 22, 2016.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters

There's more monitoring going on right over your head.

I'm talking about surveillance planes.

For more than two decades, Russia has flown its own spy planes over the US — with our permission.

It's part of something called the "Treaty on Open Skies" that dates to the end of the Cold War. The whole idea of the treaty is to enhance military transparency and cooperation among more than 30 nations. Any nation that is a signatory to the treaty can fly approved surveillance flights over another.

But now, Russia wants to use more powerful cameras in its planes.

"There's two things going on here," says The New York Times' Eric Schmitt. "One: The Russians along with other signatories of this treaty are switching over from the traditional wet-film approach to digital cameras. The other thing, though, that has some American officials concerned is the routes that the Russians are flying when they come to the US."

Schmitt says the Russians fly about five or six flights a year above the US. They traditionally go over military bases and missile silos. But now they're flying over and taking photos of critical infrastructure in the US. Think power plants and weapon test facilities. "Some generals fear it could be mapping for a possible Russian attack," he says.

So with this behavior, will the US allow Russia a camera upgrade?

According to officials Schmitt talked to, yes. The Russians already got approval to use the cameras on smaller planes that fly over Europe. "The Pentagon and Defense Department officials I spoke with say these are relatively minor things. We can live with this. They'll be further technological advances down the road the US may have more concerns about."

If approved, Russia will begin flights with their new cameras this summer. Just in time for beach season. Remember to smile when you look up.