Conflict & Justice

Domestic police forces, universities using drones despite privacy concerns


A street artist has posted satirical posters depicting the NYPD's use of drones in over 50 locations around the city this week. The art reflects a deeper concern, as police departments and other kinds of civilian entities around the country acquire federal approval to use drones.


Flickr user BitBoy

The United States is providing federal funding for police departments to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with deadly capabilities – and there's currently no oversight or transparency mandated for agencies or any other entities that are using drones against civilians. 

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Montgomery County Police Department has purchased a $300,000 Vanguard Shadowhawk drone with a grant provided by the Department of Homeland Security. But unlike some of the other police drones currently in operation around the country, this drone has the capability to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as "taser projectiles." 

Drones have long been used by the US in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to target enemy combatants in Yemen, Pakistan and other locations. They are also being used by China, Russia, Iran and Israel, but a fierce debate is on the horizon here at home, as many are questioning where the limits on drones — whether that is conducting surveillance on or using force against civilians. 

“It’s simply not appropriate to use any of force, lethal or non-lethal, on a drone,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU, to CBS in May after Montgomery County's police chief announced what his drone is capable of. 

The ACLU is also concerned with drones outside the realm of force, but they aren't the only ones. After a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that at least 18 federal agencies, local police departments, and even universities had requested and acquired federal permission from the Federal Aviation Authority to fly drones, a mass investigation into the proliferation of domestic drones began. 

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Easily accessible as downloads on the EFF site, cadres of documents include files that go back several years, some as far as 2004.

"The FAA documents we received mainly address safety issues with drone flights, but there are still many unanswered questions about the privacy implications of drones," says the EFF site, which links to information about the police departments of Seattle and North Little Rock, Arkansas, and schools like Virginia Tech and Texas A&M., a kind of 'journalist's best friend' website that specializes in Freedom of Information Act requests, joined with EFF to continue the search on who has drones and what they're using them for. After the original submissions by the team of online truth-seekers, MuckRock users were encouraged to join in and add to the FOIA request queue in an attempt to really nail down the true number of organizations that use drones. 

"Between funding issues, political backlash, and various regulations, the number is really nebulous, which is part of the impetus for the census," said Michael Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock to GlobalPost. Morisy and MuckRock have been working to send over 100 user-submitted FOIA requests to the respective agencies, departments or institutions they are addressed to. 

As an example of the questionable number of those using drones, New York City isn't on the list, but the NYPD have been accused multiple times of using aerial drones by Occupy Wall Street activists. And this week a street artist put up "advertisements" and faux street signs that feature the city's finest spying on citizens. New York magazine reports that the artist installed the posters in over 50 locations around the city, although he claims not to be affiliated with OWS. (The NYPD do, however, possess a fleet of underwater drones.)

More from GlobalPost: Inside America's drone war, a moral black box

The Obama administration approved FAA licensing of civilian use of drones in February with the "Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act" which mandates opening American airspace for drones (without needing warrants), making sure they could be used by anyone who had permission from the FAA by 2015.

According to the Associated Press, however, the FAA has missed deadlines set by the law to begin setting up a system to integrate "routine use" of civilian drones, a report by the General Accounting Office said. There are six test cities that the FAA is working with to implement these plans, and they are attempting to get the pilot program off the ground “as quickly as possible," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. 

The GAO report also cautioned the FAA about privacy concerns, and "urged the Transportation Security Administration to come up with a plan to secure operation centres for unmanned drones, recommended the government formulate privacy protections to head off 'abuses' and also pointed out safety concerns that need to be addressed regarding GPS spoofing and jamming."

Still, regardless of licensing and privacy concerns, some police departments are already flying their drones: the Seattle Police Department, for example. 

But not everyone in the government is gung-ho about drones, and there is already bipartisan pushback in Washington.

More from GlobalPost: Deadlier drones are coming [Slideshow]

Both Republican Congressman Rand Paul and Democrat Ed Markey have drafted legislation for tougher regulation of civilian drones, citing a fear that the country could slide into becoming an Orwellian police state if the freewheeling use of drones is not harnessed quickly.

According to Markey's bill, the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012, which seeks to amend the FAA law by setting up guidelines to maintain citizen privacy and promote government transparency when it comes to drone use, "it has been estimated there could be as many as 30,000 unmanned aircraft systems in the sky by 2020." 

Expert forecasts estimate that the potential market for civilian and military drones will be "nearly $90 billion over the next decade, more than half of that in the US," said the AP.

Although it seems the proliferation of domestic drones can't be stopped, there are those members of Congress whose concerns about privacy will possibly impact the future of the industry in America.

"This is an evolving field and we have thousands of these things that could be deployed in the sky," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee. McCaul has noted his concern that there is no federal agency that's stepped up to tackle the privacy issues, which he believes is crucial, according to the Huffington Post.

"I think it's incumbent on the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a policy... Local law enforcement does need that guidance," said McCaul.

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the proliferation of drones around the world, check out our Special Report "The Drone Age: Why we should fear global proliferation of UAVs."