Constitution Daily

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FBI director confirms limited drone use in U.S.

June 19, 2013 by NCC Staff


FBI Director Robert Mueller testified on Wednesday that his agency has used drones, in a very limited capacity,  to conduct surveillance within the United States.

Private drones. Source: Creative Commons
Private drones. Source: Creative Commons

Mueller told a Senate committee his agency had “very few” drones, and when they are used, the unmanned aircraft are tactically deployed in a "a very minimal way and very seldom.''

CBS News reported on Wednesday that the FBI drones were more like small model airplanes and had been used up to a dozen times, including at a high-profile hostage situation this year in Alabama.

Mueller said the FBI was working on an operational policy for drone use.

"We are in the initial stages of doing that, and I will tell you that our footprint is very small,” Mueller said. "We are exploring not only the use, but the necessary guidelines for that use."

Privacy advocates have raised questions about three types of drone use in the United States: the federal government’s use of drones in national security situations; private citizens and companies using drones for domestic purposes; and state and local law enforcement using drones for official investigations.

It’s the definition of “proper use” that is up in the air when it comes to drones and law enforcement.

One specific issue is the matter of law enforcement investigators obtaining a search warrant before they look into a house.

The Fourth Amendment affirms “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer, despite the Fourth Amendment’s message, partly because of the technology wrapped up inside higher-tech police drones. Some drones can not only see clearly into your backyard, but can also theoretically listen (in some circumstances) and take thermal-sensitive pictures. More sophisticated drones can intercept electronic communications, track GPS information, and use facial recognition technology.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are pushing hard for privacy-law reforms that would require law enforcement to strictly follow the Fourth Amendment when it comes to drone surveillance.

On a federal level, Representative Ed Markey has introduced House legislation that would require search warrants for drone surveillance and the tracking of data collection efforts.

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