A dozen years ago, anyone who stood up and declared that the U.S Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and DARPA were flying unmanned drones somewhere over the country on undisclosed surveillance missions would be promptly dismissed as a paranoid boob.
If they had suggested the Universities of Utah and Connecticut had joined the Polk County Sheriff’s Department and the Gadsen Police in flying these spy planes overhead, well, he’d be asked to take his tin foil hat and kindly leave.
Turns out, not only does every branch of service and a handful of federal agencies have authorization to fly drones over the United States, but scores of local police departments, state governments and colleges and universities do, too — over 60 entities across 20 states in all. And that’s not it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which obtained the list of authorizations through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last week, was told by officials there have been some 700-750 such authorizations since the program began in 2006, and that there are about 300 active authorizations today. This indicates that the entities on the list given to EFF each have multiple authorizations we have yet to know about.
“We raised these questions in our meeting with the FAA today and were assured the agency will release additional records with this important information soon,” EFF said on its website April19. The privacy advocate has also created a nifty map of where all these authorizations are in the U.S today, here.
There are times when some of us boobs know what we are talking about, but clearly, after 9/11 and an ongoing global war that has made drones the centerpiece of the modern American arsenal, we all should have seen this one coming down Broadway.
Of course, the trend started slow, with the military and border patrol taking up the drone in the interest of homeland security. According to a Washington Post feature last spring, some 35 percent of 270 active authorizations at the time were for the Department of Defense, 11 percent for NASA and 5 percent for the Department of Homeland Security, presumably to patrol the northern and southern borders. The rest of their activities are classified.
But beginning a few years ago, more and more authorizations were given to state departments of safety and local law enforcement to catch criminals and monitor public spaces. Now, thanks to EFF, we know that a growing range of college campuses — including Cornell University and the University of Alaska — are using them too, ostensibly for “security” in the wake of several high-profile shootings at other schools. We assume, from earlier reports, that they are mostly using Draganflyer x6 and T-Hawk drones, but we don’t know for sure, since that information, as well as what these entities were authorized to use the drones for, did not accompany the FAA list to the EFF.
In keeping with the rapid militarization of law enforcement in the U.S (thanks to surplus, local police got over $500 million in military hardware in 2011 alone), even the smallest of jurisdictions are finding excuses to adapt the new “hover and stare” capabilities of the drone. They’re already aiding in local SWAT team operations, with police declaring that drone technology offers better efficiency than helicopters. At least one man in North Dakota has been arrested thanks to a drone (he tried to chase police off his property over a cow dispute, and held them at bay until a drone was deployed, found where the man was on his 3,000-acre farm, and then swooped in to get him).
Rodney Brossart is appealing his arrest, declaring the use of the drone in his case “definitely illegal,” but the Constitutionality of drone use in law enforcement has not yet been tested in court. So far, the courts have been kind to police over the use of helicopters. The Supreme Court has said police do not need a warrant to hover and stare at people from public airspace. They do need a warrant if they use thermal imaging to spy on someone in their home or yard.
Of course we wouldn’t suggest that the police would ever test the limits of the law with new drone technology, which face it, is already way more stealthy and capable than a helicopter hovering over your neighborhood. But just think, if the military eventually passes on all of its new technology anyway, who’s to say that in 5 to 10 years these drones won’t be as fast as the Reaper (now already reportedly used at the border) and equipped with, say, the “Gorgon Stare,” which would allow the drone’s operators to see everything within a 2-mile radius via 12 different, simultaneously working camera angles?
And we would never, ever, suggest that these drones might someday be armed, perhaps beginning for “security” reasons against “prospective terrorists,” in the form of drug gangs, at the southern border.
Now that would be too paranoid, wouldn’t it?