March 12, 2013 | By Jennifer Lynch and Trevor Timm

Sunshine Week: The Year in Drones

It’s been a busy year for EFF’s Transparency Project (read our greatest hits here), but no issue has occupied us, and garnered more attention with the public, than our work on domestic drones.

Since EFF started sounding the alarm about domestic drones in late 2011, the issue has been pushed to the front and center of a nationwide debate over privacy. In just the past two months, thirty-three state legislatures have introduced legislation to restrict drone use in the name of privacy.

FAA Lawsuit

Last April, in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the FAA started slowly releasing information to us about public agencies and universities that had filed for drone authorizations inside the US. The agency first released a list of all drone license applicants, which made national headlines, but it also left much to be desired. While we knew which agencies had applied for licenses at a certain point in time, we didn’t know what type of drone the agencies wanted to fly, or what activities—surveillance or otherwise—the agencies would be using it for.

We continued to push the FAA for more information, and as the year progressed the agency slowly started to release the actual drone licenses (or Certificates of Authorization—COAs) and all the records that supported each COA application. The FAA continues to release drone authorizations to us every few months—and has released thousands of pages of records from approximately 360 applications. From those records we’ve learned about the surveillance capabilities of drones owned by various police departments, the locations of military flights all over the country. and even about how universities are using drones.

However, we’re still waiting for almost half of the records responsive to the FOIA request. In fact, we’ve waited so long, and by this point, many of the records are so outdated, that we filed a second lawsuit against the FAA to get all records produced after our first lawsuit. That second lawsuit resulted in a new drone list and our widely reproduced drone map, but it also led to many questions about just how many drone licenses the agency has issued and who has a license.

We’ll continue to pursue both lawsuits this year—and, of course, publish and report on all records we get on this site.

Local Police Agency Drone Census

In an attempt to get more information about how local police agencies were planning on using drones, we also decided to go to the sources themselves. We partnered with MuckRock and launched the 2012 Drone Census, which allowed users to file their own public records requests with their local police agencies. We would then see the request through the system, and report on the results when they came back.

The Census, which ended in January, was a huge success as over 375 records requests were filed. Highlights include Alameda County’s internal records, which showed them wanting drones for purposes not stated in their public plea to the local government, Seattle’s plans to purchase more drones despite the controversy surrounding their first two, and many police agencies expressing interest in drones, despite not yet applying for authorization.

The results are still steadily streaming in, but you can read reports about the sometimes startling information we uncovered at MuckRock’s Drone Census headquarters.

And stay tuned for the 2013 Drone Census. It’s coming.

Customs and Border Protection

But it’s not just local police that are using drones. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flies ten Predator drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders, raising even more concerns about privacy. These powerful drones—which are virtually identical to the drones flown overseas by the US military, just without the missiles—can stay in the air for over a day at a time. Beyond having high definition cameras that can see humans from miles away, new documents obtained by EPIC show that CBP’s Predators are equipped with cell phone interception technology.

CBP, besides using these drones for its own operations, has also been lending them out to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, apparently with little or no oversight. CBP has released very little information on its drone lending program, so we sued the agency under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more. We’re currently in negotiations with the agency about the records, but CBP has stated it plans to give us copies of its daily drone flight logs some time this May.


Deeplinks Topics

Stay in Touch

NSA Spying

EFF is leading the fight against the NSA's illegal mass surveillance program. Learn more about what the program is, how it works, and what you can do.

Follow EFF

Mayweather or Pacquiao? Regardless of who wins, Internet intermediaries are the losers: https://eff.org/r.qbeb

May 1 @ 5:09pm

How private DNA data led Idaho cops on a wild goose chase and linked an innocent man to a 20-year-old murder case https://eff.org/r.3832

May 1 @ 3:08pm

We think that YouTube should celebrate its 10-year anniversary by fixing ContentID eff.org/r.lc85

May 1 @ 11:08am
JavaScript license information