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September 26, 2013

FBI and cops set drones aloft without updating privacy guidelines


The FBI and numerous other local and federal law enforcement agencies are #exploring the use of drones – unmanned aircraft -- to conduct surveillance and crime scene examinations without risking the lives of pilots.

But in an interim, partially classified audit report released on Thursday, September 26th, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is raising a big caution flag. His audit team asked, in essence, “Did anyone think about Americans’ privacy rights?”

The drones weigh less than 55 pounds, and they can buzz over homes and businesses with cameras trained on activity below. They cost just 25 bucks an hour to operate – a tiny fraction of the $625 hourly cost of choppers and other manned aircraft.  Some agencies are experimenting with infrared cameras for nighttime use.

Between 2004, when the Justice Department acquired its first drone, and May of this year, the FBI and three other department components spent $3.7 million buying the drones, 80 percent of the money coming from the bureau, which already has them in use.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms plans to deploy drones soon, while the Drug Enforcement Administration and United States Marshals Service acquired them for testing, but haven’t yet decided to use them domestically, the IG says.

Officials of the FBI and ATF told the auditors they see no need to develop specialized privacy protocols, and they don’t see any practical difference in using the drones for surveillance versus manned aircraft.

But the agency watchdogs concluded that a consistent department policy may be needed for the use of small drones, which can hover covertly in areas where people might expect privacy and remain there far longer than a traditional aircraft could.

The IG’s report also found that the department’s Office of Justice Programs and its Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services failed to coordinate awards of $1.2 million so that seven local law enforcement agencies and non-profit groups could purchase small drones. Recipients include police departments in Miami, Gadsden, Ala., and North Little Rock, Ark., the sheriff’s office in San Mateo County, Ca., the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas and two Kentucky research groups.

The watchdog unit said that such grants should be coordinated so those who send the drones buzzing around don’t mess up ongoing investigations.

One good thing: Justice Department officials say that, unlike the military’s drones, their newest surveillance tools are unarmed.


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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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