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On Tuesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit based in San Francisco, filed suit against the Department of Transportation "demanding data on certifications and authorizations the agency has issued for the operation of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones."
Certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (a component of the DOT) is required for anyone in the U.S. wishing to operate a drone over 400 feet. And though the FAA says there were 285 certifications covering 85 different users as of mid-September, 2011, the details on those users are still murky. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and the FBI hold some of the certifications, as do law enforcement agencies and even academic institutions.
The EFF says in its complaint that it filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April, of last year for records of domestic drone use by both public and private entities, but so far have not received any information. "There is currently no information available to the public on which specific public and civil entities have applied for, been granted or been denied certificates or authorizations to fly unmanned aircraft in the United States," the complaint says.
The EFF "has exhausted the applicable administrative remedies with respect to its FOIA request referenced herein," according to the complaint, but the DOT "has wrongfully withheld the request records from [the EFF]."
The EFF is asking the court to order the DOT and the FAA to immediately disclose the requested records, waive all fees associated with the processing of the request and compensate them for court and attorneys fees.
Jennifer Lynch, the staff attorney for the EFF who filed the suit, said in a statement that the use of drones for non-military purposes is "raising significant privacy concerns."
"Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans' movements and activities," said Lynch in a statement. "As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens."
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol primarily uses unarmed Predator B drones to patrol the borders -- in December it acquired its ninth drone -- but Lynch pointed to one recent incident when they used a drone to help local police in North Dakota avoid a standoff with a family of sovereign citizens over some missing cows.
And, as TPM has reported, a number of local law enforcement agencies have acquired smaller drones for their own purposes, including search-and-rescue missions and taking pictures of crime scenes. The Houston Police Department even proposed using drones for issuing traffic tickets.
But, as Lynch writes, there are a number of other potential uses for drones -- particularly Predator drones -- that concern civil liberties groups like the EFF: "Predator drones can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, and one drone unveiled at DEFCON last year can crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations--without the knowledge or help of either the communications provider or the customer. Drones are also designed to carry weapons, and some have suggested that drones carrying weapons such as tasers and bean bag guns could be used domestically."
"Many drones, by virtue of their design, their size, and how high they can fly, can operate undetected in urban and rural environments, allowing the government to spy on Americans without their knowledge," Lynch writes.
"I don't believe that law enforcement agencies have the proper standards in place for when using drones is appropriate," Lynch told TPM last month.