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ACLU Slams DOJ Over Unchecked Drone Program

FBI's drones fly free of privacy safeguards according to new government report

Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

The FBI has been using domestic drones in its investigations since 2006 with no privacy safeguards in place, a report released Friday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) revealed.

“No agency, including the FBI, should deploy domestic surveillance drones without first having strong privacy guidelines in place," said Jay Stanley Senior Policy Analyst at the ACLU, upon the report's release.

FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted last June before a Senate judiciary committee hearing that the agency employs domestic drones for surveillance-use over U.S. soil, but the extent of this practice, as well as the extreme lack of regulations in the program, have not been known until now.

According to the report, the agency's domestic drones are only subject to rules that apply to manned aircraft. However, “unlike manned aircraft," the report states, "UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence.” No rules exist for these scenarios.

According to the report, the Justice Department has spent roughly $5 million on domestic drones, with most of those funds going to the FBI—the only wing of the DOJ to actively use drones in operations so far.

They will not stand alone for long, however. As the report states:

As of May 2013, six DOJ components have acquired UAS or awarded funds for UAS testing or use, but only the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has used UAS to support its mission. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) reported to us that it plans to deploy UAS to support future operations. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) have acquired UAS for testing but told us that they have no plans to deploy them operationally.

The OIG also said that several local police departments were allotted drone funding, but the DOJ has not checked back in on those departments since allocating the funds. The report did not detail the extent of drone use in local police departments.

Most of the drones purchased or funded by the DOJ as of May 2013 have been what the Federal Aviation Administration call “small UAS,” that weigh up to 55 pounds and are unarmed.

However, as McClatchy reports, "the FBI has at least once made use of a large Predator surveillance drone flown by Customs and Border Protection along the Canadian border, current and former law enforcement officials said."

"We urge the Justice Department to make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology," Stanley added. "Congress, however, should pass legislation introduced by Reps. Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren that requires law enforcement to get judicial approval before deploying drones, and explicitly forbids the arming of these machines.”


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