Who's flying drones in U.S.? ... EFF sues government to find out

Updated: Rapidly expanding domestic use of unmanned aircraft calls for public disclosure

drone

Most of us think of drones in the military context - they're being used over there to watch and kill enemy combatants - and, collaterally, innocent civilians. Your opinion of their use likely dovetails with your opinion of the wars.

But for years now they have come to be used more and more by governmental and private entities here on our home turf - not the weaponry, at least not yet - but as a surveillance tool seen as holding both great promise and the potential for great abuse. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, concerned about the latter (as we all should be) is trying to find out even the most basic information about these eyes in the sky. So far, at least, they have been stymied, which is why yesterday the EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the federal government.

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From the EFF press release:

Drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment - including video cameras, infrared cameras and heat sensors, and radar - that can allow for sophisticated and almost constant surveillance. They can also carry weapons. Traditionally, drones have been used almost exclusively by military and security organizations. However, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses drones inside the United States to patrol the U.S. borders, and state and local law enforcement are increasingly using unmanned aircraft for investigations into things like cattle rustling, drug dealing, and the search for missing persons.

Any drone flying over 400 feet needs a certification or authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, part of the DOT. But there is currently no information available to the public about who specifically has obtained these authorizations or for what purposes. EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April of 2011 for records of unmanned aircraft activities, but the DOT so far has failed to provide the information.

Such requests are generally expected to be dealt with within 20 days; this one has gone unfulfilled for nine months. I've contacted the Department of Transportation for their explanation and will let you know if they respond.

EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch offers more about why this matters: "Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans' movements and activities. As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens."

You can read the EFF's filing with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California here (.pdf). Lynch offers more background on the case here. And, my Network World colleague Michael Cooney's extensive coverage of unmanned aircraft over the past few years can be found here.

(Update: Heard back from the Department of Transportation, and, despite the fact it is the named defendant in the EFF suit, its spokesperson said I should contact the FAA. I'll do that, fully prepared to have the FAA tell me I should contact the DoT.)

(Update 2: I e-mailed EFF attorney Lynch to see if the DoT or FAA had responded in any manner at all to their request. Here is her reply: "We never received any records in response to our Freedom of Information Act request to the FAA. Under FOIA, agencies have 20 days to respond to requests for records. In that time they are required by law to either produce records or explain why they are withholding records. So far we haven't heard from them on this.

"I don't know why they haven't responded, but unfortunately, throughout the federal government there are significant FOIA delays, so this delay is not that surprising. It's unfortunate though, because Americans need this information now to be able to participate in an informed debate about drones in the United States. As I mentioned in my blog post, there is a lot of action on drones right now, and the FAA is planning to expand its Certificate of Authorization program. That will likely mean more drones in our skies very soon.")

(Update 3: So it turns out that the FAA has a Freedom of Information Act public liaison, which would seem to indicate that they deal with these requests all the time. I've left a message.)

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