Domestic Drones

U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. Read the ACLU’s full report on domestic drones here. 

Numerous states are considering (and some have passed) legislation regulating the use of drones. You can see a chart summarizing the developments around the country here. Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules to make it much easier for police nationwide to use domestic drones, but the law does not include badly needed privacy protections. The ACLU recommends the following safeguards:

USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Click here for information on the U.S. government’s use of drones overseas for targeted killings.

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Drone Test Site Selections Belie State Anti-Privacy Argument

Drone Test Site Selections Belie State Anti-Privacy Argument

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 1:40pm
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday announced six states, chosen from 25 applicants, that will be test sites for integrating drones into domestic airspace: Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia (the Alaska test site plans to also test drones in Hawaii and Oregon, and Virginia will also be testing drones in New Jersey). The chosen test sites belie one of the biggest arguments some governors, state legislators, and industry lobbyists have been using against enacting privacy protections for domestic drone use: that passing privacy legislation would undermine a state’s chances of being selected as a test site and hurt its economy.
Experts Discuss Surveillance Society at Domestic Drones Hearing

Experts Discuss Surveillance Society at Domestic Drones Hearing

By Sandra Fulton, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 5:14pm

An important Congressional subcommittee held a hearing today on domestic drone use. Members and witnesses didn't just rehash familiar concerns; they dug deeper to explore how advanced surveillance technology has become, and the real dangers of the…

Capability is Driving Policy, Not Just at the NSA But Also in Police Departments

Capability is Driving Policy, Not Just at the NSA But Also in Police Departments

By Catherine Crump, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 11:25am

If you’re concerned about the dragnet nature of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, then you should also pay attention to what your local police department is doing. You may find that the dragnet surveillance happening there has…

Aerospace Group Issues Recommendations for State Drone Legislation

Aerospace Group Issues Recommendations for State Drone Legislation

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 12:49pm

Bills aimed at regulating domestic surveillance drones are sweeping the nation. We've been working on domestic drones since before the issue crossed legislators' radars, so, knowing their reach, we were hopeful when several leading state government…

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:51pm

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a very valuable set of documents it obtained via FOIA from Customs & Border Protection (CBP) on that agency’s use of drones. EFF found that CPB has greatly increased the number of missions that it has flown—inside the border region—on behalf of other state, local and federal agencies. The EFF’s Jennifer Lynch summarizes what they found nicely in this blog post.

All the public discussion around the CBP’s use of drones has centered around their use on the border. As far as I know, CBP’s drone program was intended and authorized by Congress for the purpose of patrolling the nation’s borders. It was not intended to be a general law enforcement drone “lending library,” in which Predator drones (which are quite unlike the small UAVs that police departments around the country are beginning to acquire and deploy) are used for all manner of purposes across the country. Many of those purposes are totally unobjectionable, but if such a system is to be created, it should be only following a full, open, and democratic discussion, and (as Lynch points out) with a strong set of privacy policies. It should certainly not be created in secret by a single federal agency.

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