Parker Higgins and Trevor Timm
Since last month, when EFF released a list of the sixty-odd public agencies that have already received from the FAA approval to fly domestic drones, the issue of drone surveillance has reached front and center in many Americans’ mind. Yet barely any information is known about what law enforcement agencies plan to do with these unmanned flying vehicles. So we want your help to gather this information into one place.
The groups listed by the FAA included about two dozen local police agencies, but we expect this number to grow rapidly in the coming weeks and months. In February Congress passed a bill mandating the FAA authorize drones to public agencies if they can prove they can fly them safely. And recently, the Department of Homeland Security, which was already handing out grants to local police agencies, announced a program to “facilitate and accelerate the adoption” of drones by local police agencies. And last month the FAA announced it had established new (though undisclosed) procedures to allow more law enforcement agencies quicker access to fly drones.
The $4 million Air-based Technologies Program, which will test and evaluate small, unmanned aircraft systems, is designed to be a ‘middleman’ between drone manufacturers and first-responder agencies ‘before they jump into the pool,’ said John Appleby, a manager in the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s division of borders and maritime security.
This is, or will become, a controversy all over the United States. From Seattle, to Miami, Tennessee to Atlanta, and everywhere in between, local towns will soon grapple over the privacy dangers drones will create.
As we have explained before, the capabilities of drones are almost unimaginable:
Drones are capable of highly advanced and almost constant surveillance, and they can amass large amounts of data. They carry various types of equipment includinglive-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar. Some newer drones carry super high resolution ‘gigapixel’ camerasthat can ‘track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet[,] . . . [can] monitor up to 65 enemies of the State simultaneously[, and] . . . can see targets from almost 25 miles down range.’ Predator drones can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, and one drone unveiled at DEFCON last 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. Drones are also designed to carry weapons, and some have suggested that drones carrying weapons such as tasers and bean bag guns could be used domestically.
Given Congress’ inaction on privacy issues, and the fact that the FAA has never regulated privacy issues, we believe activism at the local level is the best way to stop drone surveillance.
What you can do
The FAA has so far not released any information on which model of drone or how many drones each public entity flies. We also don’t have much information on the type of data these drones will collect. So we need to find this information out.
We’ve made a simple form for the questions we want these police agencies to answer. We need you to call your local police department and ask them these questions. Check your local police department’s website for the “Public Inquiries” or “Community Relations” contact, and call or e-mail them these questions.
Our list of drone certificates includes police departments that we already know have a drone authorization from the FAA.
This is just the first step. Once we’ve collected the data, we will release it and tell you how you can contact your local municipal government to demand that they ban law enforcement drones or install robust privacy safeguards that will protect citizens from unwanted—and unconstitutional—surveillance.