Documents obtained by the ACLU have revealed that the U.S. Marshals Service has experimented with using drones for domestic surveillance. The documents, available on the ACLU website, were released via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The rights group says that although the Marshals Service admitted it had found 30 pages of information pertaining to its use of drones, it only actual handed over two, which were heavily redacted, containing only two short paragraphs of visible information.
Under the heading “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Man-Portable (UAV) Program,” an agency document overview states:
“USMS Technical Operations Group’s UAV Program provides a highly portable, rapidly deployable overhead collection device that will provide a multi-role surveillance platform to assist in [redacted] detection of targets.”
A further document reads:
“This developmental program is designed to provide [redacted] in support of TOG [Technical Operations Group] investigations and operations. This surveillance solution can be deployed during [multiple redactions] to support ongoing tactical operations.”
An LA Times report earlier this month revealed more, stating:
“In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Marshals Service tested two small drones in remote areas to help them track fugitives, according to law enforcement officials and documents released to the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. The Marshals Service abandoned the program after both drones crashed.”
Expressing doubt that these details cover the full scope of the Marshals’ drone use, ACLU says it is “surprising” that what was purportedly a “a small-scale experiment” still remains secret after seven years.
“As drone use becomes more and more common, it is crucial that the government’s use of these spying machines be transparent and accountable to the American people. All too often, though, it is unclear which law enforcement agencies are using these tools, and how they are doing so.” a statement on the ACLU website reads.
“We should not have to guess whether our government is using these eyes in the sky to spy on us.” the statement continues.
ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump added that “Americans have the right to know if and how the government is using drones to spy on them.”
“Drones are too invasive a tool for it to be unclear when the public will be subjected to them.” Crump added. “The government needs to respect Americans’ privacy while using this invasive technology, and the laws on the books need to be brought up to date to ensure that America does not turn into a drone surveillance state.”
There are currently several bills on the table at the state and national level to reign in the use of drones, and not without justification.
The FAA recently released an updated list of domestic drone authorizations, showing more than 20 new drone operators, and bringing to 81 the total number of public entities that have applied for FAA drone authorizations through October 2012.
After Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization last year, requiring the FAA to permit the operation of drones weighing 25 pounds or less, observers predicted that anything up to 30,000 spy drones could be flying in U.S. skies by 2020.
As we reported in December, thousands of pages of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents newly released under the Freedom Of Information Act have revealed that the military, as well as law enforcement agencies, are already extensively flying surveillance drones in non-restricted skies throughout the country.
In addition, information via news items, Department of Homeland Security press releases, and word of mouth has made it apparent that the Department of Homeland Security is overseeing predator drone flights for a range of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
Last October, the DHS announced in a solicitation that it would be testing small spy drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, signaling that the devices will be used for “public safety” applications in the near future.
Much larger drones are already being used in law enforcement operations across the country. The most infamous case involved the Brossart family in North Dakota, who were targeted for surveillance with a Predator B drone last year after six missing cows wandered onto their land. Police had already used the drone, which is based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on two dozen occasions beforehand.
As we have previously reported, some police departments have expressed a willingness to arm drones with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Indeed, drone lobbyists are now actively seeking approval for drones to be employed for “lethal force” within the United States. Drone industry insiders recently seized on the recent Christopher Dorner standoff with police, suggesting that lives would have been saved had UAVs been deployed. The lobbyists cynically suggested that privacy advocates were to blame for the deaths and severe injuries of police, because they have acted to block drone deployment by law enforcement.
Eerie industry ads also recently emerged that depicted DHS funded surveillance drones spying on private gun sales as if they were some sort of shady criminal or terroristic activity.
Recently released FAA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the FAA gave the green light for surveillance drones to be used in U.S. skies despite the fact that during the FAA’s own tests the drones crashed numerous times even in areas of airspace where no other aircraft were flying.
The documents illustrate how the drones pose a huge public safety risk, contradicting a recent coordinated PR campaign on behalf of the drone industry which sought to portray drones as safe, reliable and privacy-friendly.
Critics have warned that the FAA has not acted to establish any safeguards whatsoever, and that congress is not holding the agency to account.
FAA documents recently obtained and released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation have confirmed that the roll out of domestic unmanned drones will, for the most part, be focused solely on the mass surveillance of the American people. In a report, EPIC recently noted:
With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology. The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of “critical law enforcement operations.”
However, the FAA didn’t just rubber stamp all drone requests. For example, the Ogden Police Department wanted to use its “nocturnal surveillance airship [aka blimp] . . . for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA disapproved the request, finding Odgen’s proposed use “presents an unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”
Another report released recently, by the Congressional Research Service found that ”the prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.”
“Police officers who were once relegated to naked eye observations may soon have, or in some cases already possess, the capability to see through walls or track an individual’s movements from the sky,” the report notes. “One might question, then: What is the proper balance between the necessity of the government to keep people safe and the privacy needs of individuals?”