The Department of Homeland Security is preparing to use surveillance drones for the purposes of “public safety,” according to remarks made by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano during a House hearing yesterday.
Asked by the House Committee on Homeland Security why the DHS is not more involved in overseeing the rollout of unmanned drones domestically, Napolitano responded by pointing out that the federal agency is looking at using the technology for “public safety”.
“With respect to Science and Technology, that directorate, we do have a funded project, I think it’s in California, looking at drones that could be utilized to give us situational awareness in a large public safety [matter] or disaster, such as a forest fire, and how they could give us better information,” she said.
Despite increasing concerns about drones being hacked or used to collect personal information in violation of the Fourth Amendment, DHS officials declined to appear at a July 19 House Homeland Security Oversight, Investigations and Management Subcommittee hearing that sought to establish how the DHS could guarantee privacy rights would be protected.
As we reported earlier this year, the DHS is already using another type of airborne drone surveillance, also utilized to track insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, for the purposes of “emergency and non-emergency incidents” within the United States.
The DHS is seeking four contractors to provide “aerial remote sensing” services, using LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology fitted to drones or manned aircraft that will provide surveillance capability for “homeland security missions,” as well as “management of emergency incidents by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regional offices, joint field offices and by state and local government.”
A bill passed in by Congress in February paves the way for the use of surveillance drones in US skies on a widespread basis. The FAA predicts that by 2020 there could be up to 30,000 drones in operation nationwide.
US law enforcement bodies are already using drone technology to spy on Americans. In December last year, aPredator B drone was called in to conduct surveillance over a family farm in North Dakota as part of a SWAT raid on the Brossart family, who were suspects in the egregious crime of stealing six missing cows. Local police in this one area have already used the drone on two dozen occasions since June last year.
Last summer, the Department of Homeland Security gave the green light for police departments in the United States to deploy the ShadowHawk mini drone drone helicopter that has the ability to taze suspects from above as well as carrying 12-gauge shotguns and grenade launchers. The drone, also used against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, is already being used by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office in Texas.