Written by Parker Higgins And Trevor Timm
EFF is proud to announce that MuckRock, a open government organization dedicated to helping people send requests for public records, is joining our campaign to find out what local police agencies are doing with drones — and how we can stop their use for surveillance. We are sending out public records requests to every local law enforcement agency with a drone authorization from the FAA. In addition, MuckRock is offering their tools and inviting users to help write their own public records requests to police agencies in their town.
In January, we filed suit against the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act requesting information on the recipients of authorization to fly drones in the U.S. The FAA responded by releasing a list of approximately 60 entities that have applied for drone certificates, including over 30 local law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, the FAA refused to release information about the types of drones these agencies were flying and for what purpose.
Two weeks ago, we asked EFF members to help us find out. We provided a list of seven simple questions you can ask your local police station by calling them up — and dozens of you did just that. But now we have some help in case the police are unresponsive.
EFF already received a response from the Miami-Dade police department from a request we previously filed. The result was good news. It was the first unredacted drone Certificate of Authorization made public, and the department laid out restrictions on its use: they could not fly a drone within city limits or over populated areas, and it does not store images. Similarly,we've heard from the Texas Department of Public Safety that it hasn't flown its drones since completing training flights in August 2010.
Now, we want to find out if other agencies are restricted in the same sorts of ways.
Remember, while we currently only know of 60 public agencies with drones, the number of drone authorizations in the US is predicted to explode over the next few years—as many as 30,000 by the end of the decade. Congress passed a law in February mandating the FAA authorize use to public agencies if the applicant prove they can operate them safely, and Homeland Security Department is spending millions of dollars on a program to “facilitate and accelerate” their use by local law enforcement.
As we’ve explained before, the privacy implications are unprecedented. They can operate undetected and use sensors ranging from high-resolution cameras to heat detectors and more, and may not be subject to the same Fourth Amendment restrictions as human investigators. Ryan Calo, a prominent researcher who has written extensively about drones, has argued that drones could provide a necessary "visceral jolt" to our conception of privacy. But in order to shape policy around drones and surveillance, Americans must know the scope of law enforcement intentions.
Popular pushback may already be working. Even as states from Florida to Ohio to Connecticut to Oregon compete to run drone test sites, federal legislators are increasingly raising concerns about the bigger picture for domestic drones. Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas is among several lawmakers citing "constituents ... concerned about privacy" in reconsidering the free hand and short timeline that Congress have given the FAA. Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia and Sen. Rand Paul have separately introduced legislation to rein in domestic drone usage.
As with any new technology, drones present both possibilities and potential for abuse by law enforcement. A transparent and public discussion about how law enforcement agents will use them — that starts with real information from the agencies — is the only way to ensure that this new technology doesn't encroach upon our civil liberties.
So if you're wondering what your own police agency may be doing with drones go here and fill out this simple form so MuckRock can send them a public records request for you.