Military drones used to track terrorists or insurgents in Afghanistan
have also been flying across the U.S. homeland. Newly released documents
show U.S. drone flights by the Air Force, Marine Corps and the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency for the first time.
The Air Force has tested drones in U.S. skies ranging from
hand-launched Ravens to the larger Reaper drones responsible for
targeting and killing people overseas — all recorded through the Federal
Aviation Administration licenses required to fly in national airspace.
That information became public through a Freedom of Information Act
request from the nonprofit digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
"The FAA recently announced it wants to slow down drone integration
into U.S. skies due to privacy concerns," the EFF said. "We are hopeful
this indicates the agency is finally changing its views."
But the advocacy organization noted that the FAA documents don't show
any oversight of how drone flights could affect the privacy and civil
liberties of Americans.
The advocates run a U.S. drone census that aims to track drone flights
made in the homeland by the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies,
local police departments and universities. Part of that effort has
involved requesting the FAA to release documents showing what agencies
and organizations applied for licenses to fly drones in U.S. national
Drones flown by the Air Force near places such as Virginia Beach, Va.,
have the cameras and sensors to track moving ground targets for hours at
a time. The Reaper drone capable of both spying on people and firing
missiles at them has spent much of its time prowling the skies above
Nevada, California and Utah.
Some Air Force operators have even practiced surveillance missions they
might carry out in Afghanistan by tracking civilian cars on the
highways, according to a New York Times report.
The Air Force proved the most accommodating by allowing the related FAA
records to go public. The Marine Corps chose to redact so much material
from the records that the EFF had a difficult time figuring out the
Marines' drone programs.
On the civilian side, the drone records show how many U.S. law
enforcement agencies want to use drones for spying on drug activities in
the war on drugs. But some police departments — specifically the
Orange County, Fla., sheriff's department and Mesa County, Colo.,
sheriff — chose to withhold some or most of the information about drone
flights by claiming that public information could threaten their police
The FAA released the new batch of documents more than a year and a half
after the EFF filed its Freedom of Information Act request, but has yet
to release more than half of the available drone records. The EFF
called that "unacceptable."
"Before the public can properly assess privacy issues raised by drone flights, it must have access to the FAA's records as a whole," the EFF said.
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