Since the launch of our 2012 Drone Census three months ago, EFF and MuckRock News have filed over 200 public records requests asking federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies about their plans to use surveillance drones.
Drone use by police agencies in the US is set to drastically escalate in the coming months and years, yet we have very little information on how they plan on using them. Given the plethora of privacy dangers that drones pose to American citizens, the Drone Census gives everyone a way to bring some transparency to the process. In recent weeks, responses have started to pour in, so we wanted to share our preliminary results.
It’s important to point out that user participation is vital to our success, as the vast majority of the requests were filed on behalf of citizens concerned about their local police agency. MuckRock and EFF owe those who have participated a big thank you. If you haven’t filled out your own request, please go here to help out.
Here is a summary of what we’ve found. Of the 202 requests filed so far:
- 89 are awaiting response.
- 74 agencies have indicated that they have no responsive documents (and ostensibly no interest in drones). However, 8 of these agency leads came from the FAA's list of COA applicants. We're following up with these agencies, as they clearly have expressed interest in drones at some point.
- 19 have sent responsive documents
- 7 agencies rejected the request on a variety of grounds
- 14 require some other fix (redirect, rewording, payment etc.)
California Bay Area
The Alameda county sheriff’s office, which serves the Bay Area, made waves when they announced two weeks ago they were “considering” getting a drone. The sheriff told NBC news they would use the drone mainly for “emergencies” but documents obtained through our Drone Census released last week show they’re past “considering” and are already seeking funding from the federal government.
Furthermore, in the interview with NBC, the sheriff also suggested the drone could be used to find marijuana growers—far from an emergency—but disturbing language in the new document shows also say they could use it for spying on “suspicious persons” and “large crowd control disturbances”—exactly the type of general surveillance we’re concerned about.
At a press conference Thursday held in response to the controversy, EFF joined the ACLU and other civil liberties groups to speak out against law enforcement’s use of drones without binding privacy laws.
Also, in EFF’s backyard, the San Francisco police department wanted to apply for a $100,000 grant of Homeland Security money for the purchase of a drone through The Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative Program, according to documents obtained through our Drone Census. (This request, and the Alamedia request were sent out on behalf of a concerned user).
The SF drone, which would’ve been equipped with video and infrared sensing capabilities, would have used “risk assessment for high-rise buildings or high-voltage power lines, monitoring large events and traffic and conducting search operations.” In other words, they would have used it for far more than just emergency situations, and could potentially have used it to spy on protests, track speeders, or conduct general surveillance.
The plan was ultimately rescinded, and it’s unclear if San Francisco is still pursuing grant money for a drone.
The documents we received from Seattle Police Department are perhaps the most troubling so far. Earlier this year, we reported how the Seattle City Council found out about the Seattle Police Department’s two drones only after Seattle’s name showed up on the FAA list released as part of EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. When the police department went before the city council to apologize, they also pledged to work with the local ACLU affiliate to draw up privacy guidelines.
As MuckRock described, in July, Seattle Police Department issued departmental drone guidelines which, “limited UAS use to specific circumstances, underscoring that drones were not to be used ‘to provide random surveillance.’” But less than a month later, the policy was inexplicably eliminated: “A directive dated August 15, 2012 rescinded the drone deployment guidelines, without indicating any replacement guidelines or explaining the reasoning behind the move.”
While the department has rescinded the limitations, they also plan to expand their drone program and purchase two new units, despite the fact that the two drones they’ve already purchased sit unused. Given that the documents also suggest that “the FAA will significantly expand the area where [SPD] can operate [drones] in 2012” it is imperative that the City Council holds the police department to implementing binding privacy guidelines to protect its citizens.
Sadly, police agency interest in drones extends far beyond the Pacific Northwest. MuckRock has documents that show the Austin Police Department in Texas is aggressively pursuing drone funding, including an email from a police officer exclaiming “Wooo Hooo!” when the agency was initially accepted into a drone evaluation program of a drone manufacturer. We’ve also gotten more documents from Miami-Dade County to add to the documents EFF received earlier this year.
While we’ve seen results so far, Drone Census isn’t even close to over; in fact, it’s just beginning. You can go here to fill out MuckRock’s simple form that allows you to submit and track a public records request to your own local police station (or any police agency in your state). More than 200 agencies is a lot, but there are at least 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, so we need your help.