Disturbing documents recently obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is operating drones in the United States that are capable of intercepting electronic communications along with recognizing and a person on the ground.
CBP, a child agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which is itself quite fascinated with drones, is just one of many public entities in the United States operating drones domestically.
While we know the number is quite large and growing, it is impossible to how many entities are authorized to fly drones over the US or if the Obama administration claims the authority to kill Americans on US soil without charge or trial as has been done abroad since they refuse to answer that question.
Others flying drones over the U.S. include National Guard units (more listed here), the military in concert with law enforcement agencies around the country, the Marshals Service and so many others that universities and colleges are expanding drone piloting programs to keep up with the domestic drone boom.
While we already knew that the domestic drone program was massive beyond comprehension, EPIC most recently revealed that CBP is “operating drones in the United States capable of intercepting electronic communications,” evidenced a document from 2010.
Another document from 2005 shows that “the ten Predator B drones operated by the agency have the capacity to recognize and identify a person on the ground.”
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is that “Approximately, 2/3 of the US population is subject to surveillance by the CBP drones.”
Indeed, this is due to what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls a “Constitution-Free Zone” which essentially means little to no constitutional protection for the majority of persons living in the United States.
One of the documents obtained by EPIC reveals that the drone sensors are capable of “identifying a standing human” and “recognizing a backpack” but, according to The New York Times Bits blog, a CBP “spokesman said they cannot identify a particular individual. They can only tell if it is a person or something else.”
It’s hard to know all that much about the CBP’s claims and their truthfulness since large portions of the document have been redacted.
Furthermore, the documents at issue are from 2005 and 2010, it is impossible to know what technology has been acquired since then.
Perhaps most important of all, we now know that the former press secretary for the Obama White House was told to deny the existence of the government’s drone program. In other words, he was told to lie.
If the White House spokesman was told to lie through his teeth, why would we think other agencies and their spokespersons suddenly have some kind of deontological devotion to truth?
The 2010 document also states under section 3.1.2 that, “To readily acquire state-of-the-art technology upgrades and improvements to the commercial products and services, CBP OAM may solicit or the contractor may independently propose changes, upgrades or enhancements to the aircraft, equipment, components, or other requirements to reduce costs, improve performance, save energy or improve safety.”
Put simply, if CBP or the contractor thinks technology capable of directly identifying someone may “improve performance” – which it arguably would – then it could be implemented.
In a statement to the Huffington Post, the CBP spokesman claimed that signal interception capable of eavesdropping on cell phone calls and reading text messages hasn’t been deployed yet.
“Any potential deployment of such [drone] technology in the future would be implemented in full consideration of civil rights/civil liberties and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law and long-standing law enforcement practices,” said spokesman Michael Friel.
One must wonder why, in 2005, the CBP said that the initial payloads should include signals interception if they truly had no interest in deploying it for at least seven years.
“The agency has said that they’re not using the signals intercept technology, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of doing it, said Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s Open Government Program.
If they did use the signals intercept technology, “It seems like it would be in violation of federal privacy laws and potentially the Fourth Amendment — and we haven’t seen any sort of privacy regulations come out from the Department of Homeland Security or any other agency about the drones.”
“Notably, she added, the agency has also left open the possibility that it could one day use facial recognition technology, which would raise additional privacy concerns,” according to the Huffington Post.
All we can be comforted by is a CBP spokesman claiming they don’t engage in communications surveillance along with the following reassuring statement given to the Bits blog.
“This is not an aircraft that’s looking through windows,” the spokesman said.
Read the documents linked below for a troubling look into what one Department of Homeland Security – which claims jurisdiction over a disturbingly high number of Americans – agency has been up to with their drone program.
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