Shortly before news of Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter revealing that the president could authorize drone strikes in the United States, unearthed documents from the Department of Homeland Security show how unmanned aerial vehicles once reserved for warfare have been equipped with technology to provide detailed surveillance over U.S. soil. Some are expressing concern about the potential for abuse of laws protecting citizens’ privacy.
Just how well-equipped are they? According to a redacted document obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a non-redacted version of the same document posted by CNET‘s Declan McCullagh, some Predator B drones operated by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection are capable of intercepting electronic communication, identifying a person on the ground and even evaluating if they are armed or not.
What’s more, EPIC pointed out that these drones have been made available to other federal, state and local agencies, raising “questions about the agency’s compliance with federal privacy laws and the scope of domestic surveillance.”
The purpose of the CBP’s unmanned aerial vehicle system, according to the non-redacted document, is to “collect and pass information using an airborne sensor platform that will provide CBP and other DHS agents in the field an extended and enhanced situational awareness.”
One of the required capabilities for the drone systems built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was to be “capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not (based on position of arms) at a slant range of one and a half times the specified Operating Altitude.”
Although this might seem completely reasonable for border patrol purposes, some become concerned as the use of domestic drones is increasing. Earlier this year, a leaked memo from the Department of Justice revealed that the U.S. government was authorized to launch a drone strike against a citizen if they were “a senior operational’ leader of al-Qaeda or ‘an associated force’ regardless of whether that person poses an immediate national security threat,” TheBlaze reported. And last year, legislation was passed that required the Federal Aviation Administration to open the skies to more domestic drone use for both public and private entities by 2015.
CNET has more on the implications some think these drone surveillance capabilities could have:
The prospect of identifying armed Americans concerns Second Amendment advocates, who say that technology billed as securing the United States’ land and maritime borders should not be used domestically. Michael Kostelnik, the Homeland Security official who created the program, told Congress that the drone fleet would be available to “respond to emergency missions across the country,” and a Predator drone was dispatched to the tiny town of Lakota, N.D., to aid local police in a dispute that began with reimbursement for feeding six cows. The defendant, arrested with the help of Predator surveillance, lost a preliminary bid to dismiss the charges.
“I am very concerned that this technology will be used against law-abiding American firearms owners,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation. “This could violate Fourth Amendment rights as well as Second Amendment rights.”
Privacy advocates like EPIC are concerned about the information collecting capabilities of the drones. In fact, on Wednesday EPIC launched a petition that CBP suspend its drone program until privacy regulations were enacted.
“A 2012 Report of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Inspector General demonstrated that CBP had flown drones for the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various local law enforcement agencies, among others. As a result of this practice, anyone in the United States could be subject to surveillance by a CBP-owned drone,” read the letter EPIC drafted for petitioners to send to CBP Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar.
“Recent documents obtained by EPIC from CBP under the Freedom of Information Act establish that the CBP Predator B drones carry payload technology to intercept communications and to identify human targets on the ground,” the petition continued. “Both activities raise substantial questions about compliance with federal privacy laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and the Privacy Act of 1974. DHS has expressed interest in other technologies that would increase drone surveillance capacities, including automated license plate readers and terahertz scanners.”
Read the full petition here.
CNET reported an unnamed DHS official saying that the border patrol UAVs are unarmed and do not have facial recognition capabilities. This is not to say that the ability to identify a person in this manner won’t be there someday. For example, earlier this year, DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, was revealed to be developing cameras so sensitive they could tell what a person was wearing from 17,500 feet up.
CNET also reported the DHS official saying that the agency complies with federal laws protecting citizens rights, like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
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