Are Drones Watching You? UAF Surveillance for “Non-Military Purposes”
by Jennifer Lynch
January 12, 2012
Today, EFF filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration seeking information on drone flights in the United States. The FAA is the sole entity within the federal government capable of authorizing domestic drone flights, and for too long now, it has failed to release specific and detailed information on who is authorized to fly drones within US borders.
Up until a few years ago, most Americans didn’t know much about drones or unmanned aircraft. However, the U.S. military has been using drones in its various wars and conflicts around the world for more than 15 years, using the Predator drone for the first time in Bosnia in 1995, and the Global Hawk drone in Afghanistan in 2001. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US military has used several different types of drones to conduct surveillance for every major mission in the war. In Libya, President Obama authorized the use of armed Predator drones, even though we were not technically at war with the country. And most recently in Yemen, the CIA used drones carrying Hellfire missiles to kill an American citizen, the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In all, almost one in every three U.S. warplanes is a drone, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2005, the number was only 5%.
Now drones are also being used domestically for non-military purposes, raising significant privacy concerns. For example, this past December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased its ninth drone. It uses these drones inside the United States to patrol the U.S. borders—which most would argue is within its agency mandate—but it also uses them to aid state and local police for routine law enforcement purposes. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported in December that CBP used one of its Predators to roust out cattle rustlers in North Dakota. The Times quoted local police as saying they “have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June.” State and local police are also using their own drones for routine law enforcement activities from catching drug dealers to finding missing persons. Some within law enforcement have even proposed using drones to record traffic violations.
Drones are capable of highly advanced and almost constant surveillance, and they can amass large amounts of data. They carry various types of equipment including live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar. Some newer drones carry super high resolution “gigapixel” cameras that can “track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet[,] . . . [can] monitor up to 65 enemies of the State simultaneously[, and] . . . can see targets from almost 25 miles down range.” Predator drones can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, and one drone unveiled at DEFCON last year can crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations—without the knowledge or help of either the communications provider or the customer. Drones are also designed to carry weapons, and some have suggested that drones carrying weapons such as tasers and bean bag guns could be used domestically.