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As of November 2011, DHS maintained a fleet of seven unmanned drones, which it says it uses to patrol the southwest border alongside Mexico. In early November of that year, it was reported that the agency was going to acquire yet three more drones, even though it admitted that it did not have enough pilots to “man” the unmanned aerial vehicles it already possessed. A DHS official, speaking on condition of anonymity to a journalist at the LA Times, said that the agency didn't even want the drones, that he didn't ask for them. So why'd they get them? The so-called “drone caucus,” a group of war industry lobbyists, managed to convince Congress that DHS needed them, even when agency employees said they wouldn't be put to use.

But it's not just the southern border that's under the watchful eye of these pilotless surveillance planes. DHS is also pursuing plans to use drones to surveil the northern border between Washington state and Minnesota. 

Drones for DHS, Drones for All!

According to the FEMA website for DHS approved law enforcement and first responder equipment, state and local agencies are allowed to use federal funds to purchase drones. The following is a screengrab from this page on their website, advertising a spy drone that states and local governments can buy. It's just $342,000!

The Miami Police Department is likely getting a spy drone, if it hasn't already. Police in Texas are already using them. Cops nationwide want them

In order to use pilotless drones domestically, agencies must get FAA approval. The Washington Post's Peter Finn describes the state of domestic drones as of January 2011:

As of Dec. 1, according to the FAA, there were more than 270 active authorizations for the use of dozens of kinds of drones. Approximately 35 percent of these permissions are held by the Defense Department, 11 percent by NASA and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security, including permission to fly Predators on the northern and southern borders.

Other users are law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, as well as manufacturers and academic institutions.

For now, only a handful of police departments and sheriff's offices in the United States – including in Queen Anne's County, Md., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Mesa County, Colo. – fly drones. They so do as part of pilot programs that mostly limit the use of the drones to training exercises over unpopulated areas.

What does the ACLU make of this trend? Jay Stanley, Director of the Technology and Liberty project, told Finn:

Drones raise the prospect of much more pervasive surveillance. We are not against them, absolutely. They can be a valuable tool in certain kinds of operations. But what we don’t want to see is their pervasive use to watch over the American people.

The RKB website also advertises an unmanned helicopter, seen below:

DARPA, the military's far-out research arm, is working towards building drones the size of flies and small birds, like the one below.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.