WASHINGTON (AP) — Local, state and federal agencies ranging from local sheriff's offices to the North Dakota Army National Guard have borrowed unmanned surveillance drones from the Homeland Security Department nearly 700 times in the past three years, according to government records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The San Francisco-based civil liberties group got the Customs and Border Protection records as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The records do not list which sheriff's offices or local law enforcement agencies were able to use the surveillance drones. The EFF first reported last year that the Homeland Security drones were used 498 times for other agencies, and updated its list this week after receiving additional records from the department.
Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney for the group, said the records that were obtained also don't detail how many hours 10 unmanned Customs drones were used for other agencies or who paid for the surveillance flights. Lynch said the government declined to provide the names of local police agencies using the drones because of concerns that such information could interfere with ongoing investigations.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Jenny Burke said Wednesday that the majority of DHS drone use is for the agency's border security mission but the drones also are used to give "emergency responders real-time imagery of areas hit by disasters."
The agency's website notes the use of drones in the aftermath of multiple hurricanes and floods, including Superstorm Sandy, since 2008. Homeland Security has been using drones along the U.S. border with Mexico since 2005 and started using the technology along the border with Canada in 2009. In recent years, the popularity of using drones for domestic surveillance has grown among local law enforcement agencies.
Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a five-year roadmap for regulating drones for commercial and law enforcement purposes. Despite a congressional directive to grant the unmanned planes broader access to U.S. skies by 2015, the FAA plans to initially limit surveillance flights to permits granted on a case-by-case basis.
Privacy has been a chief concern of critics of expanded use of drones, including some lawmakers. After the FAA roadmap was unveiled last year, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the plan fell short of "putting in place the necessary privacy protections for the commercialization of drone use in U.S. airspace."
The FAA plan only addressed privacy concerns for a group of six drone test sites. For its part, Customs and Border Protection said surveillance video feeds are protected by encryption and available for viewing only by authorities with the proper clearance.
Lynch said the use of unmanned drones represents a worrisome expansion of unchecked surveillance. "When the agency isn't being transparent about the state and local agencies they are working with, it's impossible to have an informed debate," Lynch said.
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