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Domestic Surveillance Drones Threaten Civil Rights

Katrina Kaiser |
December 29, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. PST


A quadcopter drone watches an indie gaming festival. (Ed Schipul)
A quadcopter drone watches an indie gaming festival. (Ed Schipul)
Friday's extension of warrantless wiretapping amendments under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) provides an opportune moment to reflect on the gap between the stated and actual objectives of the domestic surveillance system.

In particular, the increase in requests for unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S. shows how drone use reaches beyond fighting the War on Terror abroad. Knowing what we know about U.S. drones in Pakistan and Yemen, citizens interested in their civil rights should be concerned about the evolution of drone use at home.

At the national level, the FISA amendments allow for the National Security Agency (NSA) to electronically monitor Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without a probable cause warrant, so long as one of the parties is believed to be outside the U.S. The Justice Department has allowed the NSA to wiretap any telephone that it believes will yield information from or about al Qaeda. Because the NSA does not need a warrant, the process completely lacks transparency: a closed FISA board is the only entity approving on whom or on what the NSA eavesdrops.

Domestic drones are uniquely equipped for expanding surveillance beyond hidden city cameras and traditional wiretaps. Drones already in use by law enforcement carry live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors and radar, which could illegally reveal details about goings-on inside private homes. They can also carry Wi-Fi crackers and pseudo-cell phone towers that can determine an individual’s location or intercept texts and phone calls. Surveillance drones can work undetected because they are smaller than those used abroad for attacks. Drone manufacturers admit, however, that the machines can be made to carry “less lethal” weapons such as tasers, depending on user specifications.

National police entities such as the Customs and Border Patrol, who use Predator drones, are the biggest users of domestic surveillance drones. While the Federal Aviation Administration controls drone licenses, drones are not exclusively the province of the federal government, but are also available to state and local police departments.

For example, Alameda County in the California Bay Area applied for a sub-military drone system earlier this winter. The Sheriff’s grant request indicates that the county drone would be used to assist emergency first responders on missions such as search and rescue, recovery and damage assessment, and wild land and structure fire response. It makes sense that a drone would be good for assessing an emergency situation while minimizing personal risk to first responders. However, separate grant approval documents from the California Emergency Management Agency indicate the drone is also meant to fulfill “intelligence and information sharing and dissemination, planning” against “terrorist activities,” as well as emergencies.

What terrorist activities would the Country have to worry about? The county is home to the nation’s fifth-busiest port at Oakland, and the Department of Homeland Security identifies ports as part of the nation’s critical transportation infrastructure. While a major West Coast port has yet to come under attack from those international groups targeted in the War on Terror, California protestors have significantly disrupted Port of Oakland activities twice.

It is important to consider not only the official reasons police departments want a drone, but also the potential uses and abuses of a drone in their hands, given departments’ histories and cultures of police-civilian interactions. For instance, Oakland is the site of several high-profile police shootings, including the murders of Oscar Grant in 2009 and Alan Blueford in spring of this year. The city was also the site of violent clashes between Occupy Oakland protestors and police in late 2011. Whether or not one agrees with the methodology of Occupy protestors, citizens do not leave their civil rights behind and become terrorists when they choose to rally against the political system.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with "Wired," said regarding the Alameda County drone,   “There has to be robust public engagement whether to deploy something like this.” The city council of Berkley, next door to Oakland, considered and shot down a proposal to ban drone flights within city limits. The city council debates are a good example of citizens demanding, and slowly achieving, more transparency and accountability for local surveillance drone use. During the public comment period, no residents spoke in favor of local drones. Ultimately, the council resolved to consider language discouraging general surveillance while allowing police to use them to pursue suspects and to locate missing persons.

At the national level, Congressman Edward Markey (D – Massachussetts) has recently introduced a bill that would increase privacy protection in FAA drone law provisions regarding minimizing data collection, expanding disclosure, and adding warrant requirements for law enforcement. The bill, which has bipartisan support, is rooted in the idea that as the nature of surveillance changes to become more dynamic and remote, privacy protections for citizens require updating as well.

The domestic drone controversy and the extension of the FISA amendments illustrate an evolution of the larger conflict between privacy and security in a democratic republic. People who claim “freedom” as a shared value can have very different ideas of what that looks like and how to achieve it, because freedom from excessive government involvement in ordinary life and freedom to live those lives with confidence in a safe environment are both important. But at the same time, the Fourth Amendment guarantees Americans’ civil rights to privacy and government accountability, and the letter and spirit of the Constitution must be upheld.


Read an article about international drone strikes here.

Reach Contributor Katrina Kaiser here; follow her here.



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