Domestic Drones FOIA Requests
On October 23, 2012, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests with five federal agencies seeking records related to the federal government’s domestic use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) – better known as drones – as well as plans for the future rollout of drones in the United States.
Drone technology is largely a product of our war efforts abroad, but the federal government is repurposing these machines for surveillance purposes at home. As drone technology continues to become cheaper and more powerful, drones are poised to become part of everyday American life.
The FOIA requests ask questions including:
- How are drones being funded and purchased?
- What are the technical capabilities of drones that are being flown in the U.S.?
- What type of surveillance data is being captured, and how long is it being stored?
- Who can access drones and the data they capture?
- What other policies or procedures currently govern the domestic use of drones?
The FOIA requests were sent to five agencies:
- Federal Aviation Administration: Following the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA has been tasked with developing a plan for incorporating drones into the national airspace by 2015, and authorizing private and public entities to utilize drones utilize drones. The requests ask for the FAA’s records on drone flights as well as any policies they’ve been developing.
- Department of Justice: DOJ oversees several agencies that we know are using drones in the U.S., including the FBI and DEA. The requests ask how each agency is using their own drones, drones that they are borrowing, and drones that they are lending.
- Department of Homeland Security: DHS also oversees several departments using drones, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The requests ask for records explaining how DHS is using, and sharing, its drones.
- General Services Administration: According to a recent GAO report, “Federal agencies that own or lease UAS report their UAS inventory, cost and utilization data to GSA.” The requests ask for records containing this information.
- U.S. Air Force: In a recent document implementing new policy, the Air Force listed several permissible domestic drone uses, including responding to natural disasters, counterintelligence, vulnerability assessments, training, and testing. The requests ask how the USAF has been using drones for these purposes, or any others.
The ACLU released a report on domestic drones in December 2011, urging that rules be put in place to safeguard Americans’ privacy. The report recommends limits on when drones can be deployed and for what purposes, and calls for restrictions on retention of and access to data collected by drones employed for any purpose. The FOIA requests seek to determine how extensively the government has heeded this advice.