But documents released by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (and an unredacted version of the same unearthed by CNET) late last week show that the DHS has been doing a lot more with drones in the intervening ten years, including tricking them out with cellphone sniffing equipment, sensors that can distinguish between humans and animals, and technology that tells authorities whether someone on the ground is packing a gun.
Frighteningly, the records also show that the DHS’ Predator drones are ready to be equipped with weapons, although a spokesman for DHS sub-agency Customs, Border Protection (CBP) told CNET’s Declan McCullagh that the drones are currently unarmed. McCullagh reports that the DHS has been loaning its drones to domestic law enforcement agencies with criminal justice missions, “including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, and local police.” Requests from those agencies are becoming more and more common, he writes:
“[DHS drone] use domestically by other government agencies has become routine enough – and expensive enough – that Homeland Security’s inspector general said (pdf) last year that CBP needs to sign agreements ‘for reimbursement of expenses incurred fulfilling mission requests’.”
The DHS told McCullagh that it isn’t using “signals interception” on its drones – yet – and that “[a]ny potential deployment of such technology in the future would be implemented in full consideration of civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law and long-standing law enforcement practices.” But if “longstanding law enforcement practices” are any indication of where the DHS is headed, we are in trouble.
That’s because often “long-standing law enforcement practice” has been to get away with whatever it can using the loosest interpretation of the fourth amendment possible, before legislators or courts act to correct the problem (if they ever do).
* Kade Crockford, “Drones are coming home to skies near you: feel safer?”