Drones Used More By Law Enforcers; Surveillance Expected To Be Common


Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly borrowing border-patrol drones for domestic surveillance operations, newly released records show. The Washington Post calls it “a harbinger of what is expected to become the commonplace use of unmanned aircraft by police.” Customs and Border Protection, which has the largest U.S. drone fleet of its kind outside the Defense Department, flew nearly 700 such surveillance missions on behalf of other agencies from 2010 to 2012, according to flight logs released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group.

Most of the border missions are performed for the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration and immigration authorities. They also aid in disaster relief and in the search for marijuana crops, methamphetamine labs and missing persons, among other missions not directly related to border protection. Because they have sophisticated cameras and can remain in flight for many hours at a time, drones raise novel privacy challenges. Civil libertarians argue that they could lead to persistent visual surveillance of Americans on private property. Government lawyers say there is no meaningful legal distinction between the use of unmanned and piloted aircraft for surveillance. A U.S. Senate committee holds a hearing today on the issue.

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