Customs & Border Protection released a new list to EFF this week that details the extensive number of times that the agency has flown its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies—500 flights in total over a three-year period. This list shows, yet again, how little we know about drone flights in this country and how important it is that we place limits on drone use to protect Americans’ privacy rights.
EFF obtained the list of federal, state and local agencies as a result of our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency. Not only does the list show the total number of flights by year between 2010 and 2012, but it shows CBP flew its drones over 100 times just for Department of Justice components including FBI, DEA and US Marshals. This is in direct contradiction to a recently released DOJ Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report (pdf) that stated DHS had flown its drones on only two occasions for DOJ law enforcement components.
We discussed some of the other agencies that benefited from CBP’s Predators in a previous post, but some agencies on the list are new. These include the Grand Forks SWAT, the North Dakota Narcotics Task Force, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Minnesota Drug Task Force, and several branches of the military.
The list also includes several county sheriff’s departments. However, CBP has refused to release the names of these agencies, arguing in a recent court filing that to do so would disclose secret law enforcement techniques and would somehow “reveal that CBP is aware of the illegal activities taking place in a particular location.” It’s hard to fathom how releasing the name of a county sheriff department—without any other information about the drone flight for that department—would somehow let the criminals in the area know they’re being watched and help them evade detection.
Even after all the attention drone surveillance has garnered in the US, CBP has yet to establish rules for its drone flights that would protect Americans’ privacy rights. In the report on the DOJ’s drone use, the Inspector General severely chastised DOJ for similarly failing to implement privacy-protecting rules—and for willfully failing to recognize that drone surveillance raises privacy issues different from surveillance with manned aircraft. The OIG recognized what EFF has been saying all along—that the advanced technological capabilities of drones, their low operational costs as compared to manned aircraft, and their ability to conduct “pervasive tracking of an individual’s movements” whether on “public or private property “ raise “unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence.”
We welcome the Inspector General’s investigation of DOJ drone use and hope the same will happen within the Department of Homeland Security—and within CBP in particular. We also encourage the agencies to follow the OIG’s recommendation to convene a working group to address the privacy risks and establish explicit agency-wide rules to protect individual privacy interests.