Privacy SOS

No police drones in MA yet, but Raytheon is flying a bunch of them

Above: Raytheon's Small Missile Systems offices in Tuscon, AZ. Photo: Ken Lund

On Thursday, EFF published the initial results of a FOIA request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking information on the agency's drone authorization program. The April 13, 2011 public records request was not answered promptly, so the organization sued. The documents below were the first the FAA finally released. (Note: this isn't how FOIA law is supposed to work, but unfortunately "the most transparent administration ever" oversees federal agencies that usually only divulge important information after they are taken to court.)

The FAA released two lists to EFF: one shows a list of public agencies and institutions that have applied for drone permits, called Certificates of Authorizations (COAs). The other list shows permissions given to private drone manufacturers, or Special Airworthiness Certificates (SACs). Unfortunately, the information provided by the FAA does not reveal how many drones each of the listed agencies possesses. EFF raised the issue in a meeting with FAA officials, where

the agency confirmed that there were about 300 active COAs and that the agency has issued about 700-750 authorizations since the program began in 2006. As there are only about 60 entities on the COA list, this means that many of the entities, if not all of them, have multiple COAs (for example, an FAA representative today said that University of Colorado may have had as many as 100 different COAs over the last six years).

The University of Colorado seems to have multpile and diverse interests in drones, ranging from "keep[ing] tabs on Arctic seals" to an aerospace engineering program and the student group "Drone On at CU," which aims to "inspire students to build passion for engineering" drones and making them more environmentally friendly:

Who wants drones domestically? What for?

The list of public agencies that applied for drone permits shows that Boston Police had not applied for one, at least not before the FAA released the documents. The following police departments had:

  • Arlington, VA (active certificate)
  • Houston, TX (expired)
  • Little Rock, AR (active)
  • Gadsden, AL (active)
  • Miami-Dade, FL (active)
  • Ogden, UT (active)
  • Seattle, WA (active) (note: the Washington State Department of Transportation had a permit, as well, but it was expired when the FAA produced the documents)

A number of universities besides the University of Colorado also have permits, as do the following federal agencies:

  • DHS — Customs, Border Protection
  • DHS — Science and Technology
  • various branches of the US military
  • Department of Energy — Idaho National Laboratory
  • Department of Energy — National Energy Technology Laboratory (note: this news report says that DHS is increasingly relying on DOE laboratories due to budget cuts)
  • Department of Agriculture — US Forest Service (2 permits)
  • Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service (2 permits)
  • Department of the Interior — National Business Center/Aviation Management Directorate
  • DOJ — Queen Anne's County Office of the Sheriff
  • DOJ — FBI
  • NASA
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

While no police departments or other state agencies in Massachusetts had applied for drone permits before the FAA released the documents, another powerful entity in the state maintains licenses to operate a number of drones.

It's not surprising to find that the company has five active permits from the FAA to fly COBRA drones, because Waltham-based Raytheon is a major weapons manufacturer responsible for the production of the missile systems used by many weaponized drones. (It is also reportedly developing a laser that can shoot drones down from the sky.) And according to Wired, Raytheon has been working for years to weaponize the smaller COBRAs, potentially expanding the drone war exponentially in the process.

Raytheon, the defense giant, has been working since 2009 on what it calls a Small Tactical Munition — as the name suggests, it’s a bomb tiny enough to attach onto the military’s fleet of small to medium drones like the Shadow. Weighing 12 pounds and standing 22 inches, the guided munition has the potential to expand the drone war dramatically, giving battalion-sized units that fly small drones the ability to kill people, like the remote pilots who fly the iconic Predators and Reapers do.

Raytheon performed similar tests with the COBRA, pictured below.

The FAA's expansion of domestic drone usage, with Congress' blessing, is not an academic problem. The coming drone invasion could very well mean the end of privacy in public as we know it.

Nor is Raytheon's drone weapons development program a trivial matter. The CIA has just announced that it wants the authority to kill based on statistical probability instead of facts or identifications of supposed terrorists.

You heard that right: the CIA is publicly admitting that it wants the authority to kill people even when it doesn't have a positive ID on them, but just assumes they are Bad Guys.

The agency has been authorized to commit these blind attacks in Pakistan for some time now — perhaps that is what has led to reports alleging the CIA has repeatedly bombed rescue workers and funerals? Were those mourners found to be statistically likely to be terrorists? 

Now the CIA wants the power to kill people it has a hunch are up to no good in another country, Yemen. And Raytheon is meanwhile figuring out better ways to weaponize the smaller variety of drone, more like what will soon be deployed by police and other domestic agencies nationwide.

Far from Pakistan and Yemen, Seattle police officers are training to deploy their own drones, though the department won't say what it intends to use them for. The Seattle Times reported the "police department declined Friday to talk about how the department intends to use drones, saying it was just now training operators."

Police declined to talk about how they intend to use drones, but are currently training to use them? That's odd. What does the Seattle Police Department have to hide?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.