Local Law Enforcement Borrowing Federal Drones for Surveillance

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Local Law Enforcement Borrowing Federal Drones for Surveillance

A report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals that Customs and Border Protection is loaning its drones to state and local law enforcement agencies for surveillance.

Daily flight logs from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveal that the federal department has been busy loaning Predator drones to “state, local, and non-CBP federal agencies.”

According to EFF’s summary of the documents, the number of CBP drone flights flown by other organizations has increased “eight-fold between 2010 and 2012.” EFF further reports that “CBP has failed to explain how it’s protecting our privacy from unwarranted drone surveillance.”

CBP calls its report on its Predator surveillance program the “Concept of Operations.” EFF received this report, as well as three years of flight logs, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

An EFF blog post reports that the Concept of Operations document discloses that “CBP already appears to be flying drones well within the Southern and Northern US borders, and for a wide variety of non-border patrol reasons. What’s more — the agency is planning to increase its Predator drone fleet to 24 and its drone surveillance to 24 hours per day / 7 days per week by 2016."

Around the clock, domestic surveillance provided by two dozen Predator drones buzzing in the skies of the United States will, as much as any other federal project, convert the “homeland” into a virtual prison with the inmates under the watchful, never-blinking eye of the wardens.

Just how will the information collected by these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) be used? The CBP report published by EFF provides some insight:

As the Concept of Operations report notes, CBP’s goal is that its drone data will be “persistently available” (p. 21) and interoperable (p. 29) — not just within CBP, but to other agencies, and also possibly to other countries. CBP plans that its “UAS will provide assured monitoring of entities along land borders, inland seas, littorals and high seas with sufficient frequency, continuity, accuracy, spectral diversity, and data content to produce actionable information.” (p. 29)

While there was much valuable information contained in the cache of documents provided by CBP to EFF, the agency redacted most relevant data related to dates and geographical location of the drone flights. What was revealed, however, was a partial list of the agencies and departments who’ve borrowed CBP’s Predators. The roster includes the FBI, ICE, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Coast Guard, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, North Dakota Army National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety.

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