Drones are not just for spying and targeted assassinations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones. They are also being used extensively for surveillance in the U.S.
The fact of domestic drone surveillance is not new. There have been numerous reports of Customs and Border Protection using Predator drones to monitor the nation's borders, and that multiple branches of the military are authorized to fly drones in the U.S.
But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provided evidence last week of how extensive that use is, not only by the federal government but by local law enforcement as well, with a posting of several thousand pages of drone license records, along with a new map that tracks the location of those domestic flights.
The documents were the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in April 2011 to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and then a lawsuit in January 2012 against the FAA's parent agency, the Department of Transportation (DoT), demanding the records.
They show that government's surveillance capabilities [http://www.csoonline.com/article/721550/government-online-surveillance-on-rise-in-murky-legal-environment] go well beyond the Internet monitoring and the ubiquitous cameras at intersections, toll plazas and other public places.
The capabilities of drones are both impressive and disturbing to civil liberties advocates. According to the FOIA complaint, they carry equipment that can, "conduct highly sophisticated and almost constant surveillance. Including video cameras, infrared cameras and heat sensors, and radar." They range from the size of conventional aircraft to as small as a hummingbird.
The complaint quoted a description of the U.S. Army's A160 Hummingbird Drone-Copter that includes, "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 ... see targets from almost 25 miles down range.
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"And one drone unveiled this 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," the complaint said.
Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, said it calls to mind the old saying about wishing to be a fly on the wall. "Well, now the many people who have pondered such a possibility will now have the technology to literally do so," she said.
Jennifer Lynch, an EFF staff attorney, wrote in a post on the organization's website that a Reaper Drone being used by the Air Force uses "Gorgon Stare" technology, which is capable of "capturing motion imagery of an entire city."
The records also show that numerous law enforcement agencies, including local, county and state police departments, are seeking to use drones "for a whole host of police work," including searching farm fields for marijuana cultivation, surveillance of drug market transactions "and to conduct aerial observation of houses when serving warrants," Lynch wrote.
All this has privacy advocates concerned, in particular, they say, because the technology is far ahead of case law. Catherine Crump, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), questions the the legality of drone surveillance. "[It is] unclear because drones are so new. These are very sophisticated cameras -- if they are invasive and not in common use, it's possible that the Fourth Amendment [prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure] would prohibit it. But we're in very uncertain territory," she said.
Crump said the ACLU is also concerned about what she said are expressions of interest by law enforcement of having armed drones. "We're opposed to that," she said.
Lynch told CSO Online: "[The EFF is] concerned about government use of drones for surveillance without any oversight and without any precursor level of suspicion or probable cause, as would be required for a warrant."
Herold said existing privacy laws were written "without consideration of having technology that would actually be hovering over our heads and houses, looking down and recording our activities and property details. As a consequence, I'm not aware of any laws that specifically prohibit such actions."
Jody Westby, CEO of Global Cyber Risk, said the tendency of law enforcement to adopt new technology without considering its impact on privacy and civil liberties is, "unacceptable. Law enforcement agencies need to understand that laws are technology neutral and conduct the proper analysis of whether or not an intended use would violate the Constitution, privacy laws or criminal laws, such as those governing interceptions."
Catherine Crump said there is interest from some members of Congress, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), to draft legislation governing the use of drones to include privacy protections.
She said the Republican Platform at this year's presidential nominating convention included a plank that called for a ban on the "unwarranted and unreasonable use of drones." But, both terms remained undefined.
Crump said EFF has made a good start, by forcing the FAA to be more transparent about the extent of drone use. But beyond that, she said, citizens "should be able to be in public without being surveilled."
And Lynch said that besides more transparency, "[we] are also pushing public entities to limit the surveillance technologies used on drones and to require a warrant before using drones to surveil citizens."