Customs and Border Protection Loaning Drones to Police

By:  Warren Mass
Customs and Border Protection Loaning Drones to Police

U.S. Customs flew nearly 700 drone surveillance missions on behalf of other federal law-enforcement agencies.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — the law-enforcement agency created as a division of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 — flew nearly 700 surveillance missions on behalf of other federal, as well as state and local, law-enforcement agencies from 2010 to 2012. These figures came from flight logs released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil-liberties group.

In an update posted on its website on January 14, EFF noted that Customs and Border Protection recently released data from its flight logs indicating that it had flown 200 more surveillance missions for other agencies than previously reported. EFF reported the lower figures last July based on daily flight log records that CBP made available to the rights group in response to EFF's FOIA lawsuit. According to those figures, CBP had an eight-fold increase in such surveillance flights. 

Among the federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies “borrowing” CBP’s drones were the FBI, ICE, the U.S. Marshals, the Coast Guard, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Customs and Border Protection initially said that the information released last July represented all the missions the agency flew on behalf of other law-enforcement agencies. However, in a notice of cross motion for summary judgment filed against CBP by EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch on December 11, 2013, EFF asked the court to “issue an order requiring the government to release all records improperly withheld from the public.” Just prior to the court hearing on EFF’s motions, CBP announced that it had “discovered that it did not release all entries from the daily reports for 2010-2012.”

The new information revealed that CBP’s surveillance activities for other agencies were more extensive than previously reported. As EFF notes: “Not only do these new flight logs and the accompanying new list of agencies show a striking increase in the overall number of flights (700 versus 500) they also reveal a sharp increase in the number of flights for certain federal agencies like ICE (53 more flights than previously revealed) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (20 more flights).”

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