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Mon, Jan 16, 2012

Privacy Group Sues For More Info On Drones

EFF Says DOT Has Ignored FOIA Request For Nine Months

If the increasing use of unmanned aircraft by civil law enforcement in the US had been going smoothly up till now, it looks like the debate over privacy rights is starting to heat up. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) accuses the US government of covering up records of which agencies have received permission to fly drones for surveillance purposes, and of ignoring a Freedom of Information Act request for a complete list.

From its press release, EFF explains:

"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 (FOIA) request in April of 2011 for records of unmanned aircraft activities, but
the DOT so far has failed to provide the information."

It's not clear exactly what EFF is chasing. The "cattle rustling" mention appears to refer to a case which took place in Nelson County, North Dakota where, as ANN reported, Sheriff Kelly Janke got assistance from Customs and Border Protection after being chased off a farm. Privacy advocates seem to overlook the fact that Janke had a warrant for the search, and EFF seems to have missed the point that the drone was flown by CBP, not by "local law enforcement." FAA approval for testing of drones in civilian
law enforcement applications above 400' AGL have been extremely limited and well publicized.

EFF says it has escalated its efforts to a lawsuit. It's possible the list sought by the foundation simply does not exist, but the government is required by law to reply to a FOIA request within 20 days, with either the requested information or an explanation of why it is not being provided. Even in a time when many Americans are unnerved by security measures seen as dangerously overreaching, that provision of the FOIA appears to be routinely ignored.

Legal precedent in the US has already established that activity which might be viewed from the air carries no expectation of privacy, even in your own back yard. But the sophisticated sensors on drones derived from military applications may prompt further discussion. EFF notes, "The use of drones in American airspace could dramatically increase the physical tracking of citizens – tracking that can reveal deeply personal details about our private lives. We're asking the DOT to follow the law and
respond to our FOIA request so we can learn more about who is flying the drones and why."

FMI: www.eff.org

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