The Federal Government Moves Forward with Drone Programs Despite Poor Planning and Lack of Oversight
DHS’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report (pdf) detailing multiple problems with the drones used to patrol US borders. This report, combined with the Federal Aviation Administration’s lack of openness about its drone authorization program and failure to disclose the true number of entities flying drones, shows that the federal government is moving far too quickly in its plans to dramatically expand the number of domestic drones flying in the United States over the next few years.
The DHS OIG report, which reviewed the drone program run by Customs & Border Protection (CBP), noted several serious problems with the program, including lack of appropriate equipment and staff to fly the drones safely and lack of processes or procedures to prioritize requests for drone flights. This is especially troubling, given the agency has been flying drones since 2004.
CBP currently has nine unarmed Predator drones in its arsenal, each purchased at a cost of $18 million dollars. The drones cost $3,000 per hour to fly, and, according to the OIG report, the agency spent over $55 million (pdf) to operate and maintain the drones between 2006 and 2011. Despite these costs, CBP never made a specific budget request to Congress for the funds, and has thus far failed to seek compensation from the other federal and state agencies it loans its drones to. Instead, the agency diverted $25 million from other programs to cover these costs.
This lack of adequate planning and oversight is concerning, given the government’s push to quickly expand the number of domestic drone flights (see the timeline1 above and linked) and the little we know so far about drones currently flying in the US. As we’ve written previously, despite our FOIA lawsuit and significant public interest, the FAA has yet to release any information on the number and types of drones public entities are currently flying in the United States. On top of this, the FAA has failed to account for the discrepancies between the numbers of public entities flying drones as listed on a July 2011 “Fact Sheet” (pdf) (90 entities) and the list it released to EFF this April (60 entities).2
Despite all this, there are a few bright spots in the recent drone news. Congressman Austin Scott from Georgia just introduced a bill before the House that’s designed to “protect individual privacy against unwarranted governmental intrusion” from drones. The bill would require federal agents to get a warrant before using a “drone to gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation.” Senator Rand Paul introduced a similar bill in the Senate. While both bills have some drawbacks (the Scott bill doesn’t appear to apply to state or local law enforcement, and both bills seem to have large loopholes for border searches and terrorist-related investigations), they are good first steps toward regulating police use of drones.
We’ve also been encouraged by local efforts in Seattle, Washington and Shelby County, Tennessee to push for policies for law enforcement use of drones, and we hope other localities will follow suit.
If you’re concerned about the lack of transparency and adequate legal procedures for drone use in your area, we encourage you to support Congressional efforts to develop a law that would place restrictions on the use of drones for surveillance. We also encourage you to help EFF find out how your local police agency is using drones by contacting your local agency and reporting back to us. We will continue to monitor and report on domestic drone flights here.
- 1. Special thanks to the Center for Democracy & Technology for first compiling these dates and suggesting they be made into an infographic.
- 2. The FAA later quietly updated this list on its website (pdf). According to a discussion with the FAA’s attorney, the FAA employee who created the “Fact Sheet” no longer works at the agency, so the FAA doesn’t really know how he arrived at the numbers on the Sheet. The attorney later clarified that “some agencies on the list released to EFF have ‘sub-layers’ that were counted as separate proponents for purposes of the Fact Sheet,” however, the FAA was tightlipped on what these “sub-layers” were.