Privacy SOS

How the drone army will reintegrate when it comes home

This guest post was written by ACLU of Massachusetts legal fellow Nashwa Gewaily

There has been a lot of buzz around “something peculiar” that happened over the weekend:  In two separate operations, the Obama administration sent Navy SEALs to capture suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia and Libya instead of seeking immediate kills through drone strikes. 

It’s too soon to know whether these two raids might signal a shift in the administration’s “counterterrorism” policy abroad.  It was, after all, impossible to launch drone strikes in one of the two instances anyway – there are no bases close enough to Tripoli to have even had the option. 

But, while any possible drawdown of lethal drone use abroad is still uncertain, one thing is inevitable: with a reduction in CIA and military drone use abroad will come a rush to shift demand to the U.S. domestic market. 

As Glenn Greenwald has noted, the “history of domestic law enforcement particularly after 9/11 has been the importation of military techniques and weapons into domestic policing.” Surveillance drones are among the latest in military technology to be converted to civilian use. Some analysts, including Greenwald, believe the weaponization of domestic drones to be inevitable, even imminent – and in fact, law enforcement officials have even already publicly acknowledged that the unmanned machines could potentially be equipped with bean-bag guns, rubber bullets, tear gas, and tasers.

Senator Rand Paul, himself a drone critic, once quipped that he would be comfortable with law enforcement using weaponized drones domestically. “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him,” the Senator said.

We don’t know if any law enforcement organization is actively planning to use weaponized drones. But we know for sure that drones have been deployed within the U.S. for surveillance and monitoring purposes for a decade

Although the FBI’s domestic drone program went officially unacknowledged until this past June, a recent audit by the DOJ’s Inspector General revealed that the agency has been using drones to track criminal suspects and conduct other surveillance since 2006, with minimal public notice and even less regard for privacy protection. The DEA, ATF, and U.S. Marshals Service have purchased and tested drones. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been monitoring the Canadian and Mexican borders using unarmed Predator drones since 2011. Beyond that, CBP’s surveillance drones are flown on behalf of state, local, and federal agencies well within U.S. borders in response to various law enforcement requests.  Such surveillance missions take place without any known privacy or inter-agency information sharing guidelines and continue to rapidly increase in number – with daily flight logs revealing an eight-fold increase between 2010 and 2012 alone.

How did surveillance drones proliferate so rapidly in the domestic sphere in recent years? 

One answer can be found in the “drone caucus,” a pro-drone bipartisan group comprised of 51 House representatives and officially known as the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus.  That’s right: your representatives in Congress formed a caucus whose mission is to ensure the expansion of the drone industry and which proclaims itself the drone “industry’s voice on Capitol Hill.”

And that voice has echoed loud and clear in the halls of Congress.  The caucus has been among the most effective, and perhaps among the least discussed, Congressional coalitions. Its leading members

have played key roles in drone proliferation at home and abroad through channeling earmarks to Predator manufacturer General Atomics, prodding the Department of Homeland Security to establish a major drone program, adding amendments . . . to ensure the more rapid integration of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] into the national airspace, and increasing annual DOD and DHS budgets for drone R&D [research and development] and procurements.

Unsurprisingly, it was a member of the House drone caucus who introduced the 2012 amendment in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that requires the authorization of widespread domestic drone use and mandates accommodation in national airspace

In a PowerPoint presentation prepared by top lobbyists for AUVSI – the trade group that helped found the drone caucus – the lobby took full credit, not just for successful passage of the bill, but also for authoring the amendment itself.  The presentation (intended for industry members) boasts: “[T]he only changes made to the UAS [unmanned aircraft system] section of the House FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI.  Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word.”  

Why would these elected officials shill for the drone industry? Simple: Representatives in the House drone caucus have drawn over $8 million in campaign contributions from the dozens of firms and drone manufacturers that are members of AUVSI.  Among the largest donors to caucus members? Companies “with drone aircraft currently used by the military, but with potential civilian applications.”

With the drone industry “on the verge of unprecedented domestic growth,” Congress has served the opportunism of drone manufacturers while failing to protect the privacy rights of its constituents.

That’s why state legislatures and civil liberties groups such as the ACLU are taking actionto ensure privacy safeguards in an area in which the law has not kept pace with technological developments.  With all the benefits to be reaped from advancements in technology, we cannot ignore the obvious threats. The unique risks posed by warrantless and potentially weaponized drone use by police are entirely foreseeable – especially when those drones can be equipped with license plate scanners, facial recognition cameras, thermal imaging cameras, cell phone tracking, and open WiFi sniffers. 

It’s up to the public to remind legislators that protecting constituents means preventing our privacy interests from flying under the radar. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.