Source: Steve Watson

The backlash against government and law enforcement plans to use surveillance drones is continuing apace across the nation, with the latest victory for privacy coming in Seattle.

AP reports that Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the city police department to scrap extensive plans it had to roll out drones it has already acquired through federal grant money.

“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority,” a statement from the Mayor read.

Residents and anti-drone activists have been leading protests against the drone plans for some time. A City Council meeting on Wednesday saw many speak out against the plans, influencing the decision to block authority for police to use the unmanned craft.

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said “We applaud the mayor’s action… Drones would have given the police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on the privacy of people in Seattle … and there was a never a strong case made that Seattle needed them for public safety.”

The Seattle Police Department had planned to deploy unmanned surveillance drones over the city after it became one of the first law enforcement agencies in the US to be granted permission by the federal government to do so.

Privacy and civil rights concerns raised by residents prompted police to issue a draft operating policy manual that stated “…the onboard cameras will be turned … away from occupied structures, to minimize inadvertent video or still images of uninvolved persons.”

This still wasn’t enough to convince lawmakers that the drones were appropriate for use in Seattle skies.

The Sky Valley Chronicle, which also took issue with the drone roll out, noted last year that the SPD is “the same police department that the U.S. Justice Department found – after an 11-month probe – had engaged in “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.”

“And that was with no drones in the air.” the newspaper urged.

Since the acquired the drones, officers have paraded them to the public in several presentations.

The unmanned craft purchased by police were fitted with surveillance cameras with face-recognition software, as well as separate cameras offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment. The Draganflyer X-6 drone, seen in the videos below, can travel up to 30 mph and can fly as high as 8,000 feet.

Several other states and cities are considering legislation to prohibit the use of drones in domestic skies. Oregon became the latest state to do so this week with the introduction of a bill setting out licensing requirements for drone use in the state. The bill would fine those who use unlicensed drones to conduct surveillance. New limitations are also being proposed for federal evidence collected by drone use in a state court.

The FAA this week released an updated list of domestic drone authorizations, showing more than 20 new drone operators, and bringing to 81 the total number of public entities that have applied for FAA drone authorizations through October 2012.

After Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization last year, requiring the FAA to permit the operation of drones weighing 25 pounds or less, observers predicted that anything up to 30,000 spy drones could be flying in U.S. skies by 2020.

As we reported in December, thousands of pages of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents newly released under the Freedom Of Information Act have revealed that the military, as well as law enforcement agencies, are already extensively flying surveillance drones in non-restricted skies throughout the country.

In addition, information via news items, Department of Homeland Security press releases, and word of mouth has made it apparent that the Department of Homeland Security is overseeing predator drone flights for a range of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Last October, the DHS announced in a solicitation that it would be testing small spy drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, signaling that the devices will be used for “public safety” applications in the near future.

Much larger drones are already being used in law enforcement operations across the country. The most infamous case involved the Brossart family in North Dakota, who were targeted for surveillance with a Predator B drone last year after six missing cows wandered onto their land. Police had already used the drone, which is based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on two dozen occasions beforehand.

Plans to roll out drones by law enforcement agencies in California and Buffalo have recently met with stern opposition.

As we have previously reported, some police departments have expressed a willingness to arm drones with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Police departments are also attempting to get approval to use surveillance blimps that hover over cities and watch for “suspicious activity.”

The U.S. Army recently tested a football field-sized blimp over the city of New Jersey. The blimp can fly for a period of 21 hours and “is equipped with high-tech sensors that can monitor insurgents from above.”

Recently released FAA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the FAA gave the green light for surveillance drones to be used in U.S. skies despite the fact that during the FAA’s own tests the drones crashed numerous times even in areas of airspace where no other aircraft were flying.

The documents illustrate how the drones pose a huge public safety risk, contradicting a recent coordinated PR campaign on behalf of the drone industry which sought to portray drones as safe, reliable and privacy-friendly.

Critics have warned that the FAA has not acted to establish any safeguards whatsoever, and that congress is not holding the agency to account.

FAA documents recently obtained and released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation have confirmed that the roll out of domestic unmanned drones will, for the most part, be focused solely on the mass surveillance of the American people. In a report, EPIC recently noted:

With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology.  The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.”

The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of “critical law enforcement operations.”

However, the FAA didn’t just rubber stamp all drone requests. For example, the Ogden Police Department wanted to use its “nocturnal surveillance airship [aka blimp] . . . for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA disapproved the request, finding Odgen’s proposed use “presents an unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”

Another report released recently, by the Congressional Research Service found that ”the prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.”

“Police officers who were once relegated to naked eye observations may soon have, or in some cases already possess, the capability to see through walls or track an individual’s movements from the sky,” the report notes. “One might question, then: What is the proper balance between the necessity of the government to keep people safe and the privacy needs of individuals?”

The “ability to closely monitor an individual’s movements with pinpoint accuracy may raise more significant constitutional concerns than some other types of surveillance technology,” CRS says.

“Unless a meaningful distinction can be made between drone surveillance and more traditional forms of government tracking,” the report notes, “existing jurisprudence suggests that a reviewing court would likely uphold drone surveillance conducted with no individualized suspicion when conducted for purposes other than strict law enforcement.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the biggest union of law officials in the US,issued a stark warning about increased drone use.  The union released guidelines calling for a reassessment of the potential widespread use of aerial drones for domestic policing.

In another recent development, a prominent private investigator operating out of New York and Texas noted that anyone engaging in any large scale protest, is now subjected to scanning by dronesthat skim their personal information from their cell phones.

Despite all these facts, close to half of Americans indicated recently that they are in favour of police departments deploying surveillance drones domestically.