Saturday, January 5, 2013

DHS is loaning UAV's or drones to police across the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security is purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars in new drones to patrol the borders. But increasingly the agency is lending its umanned aerial vehicles to local law enforcement, raising questions about privacy, taxpayer costs and militarization of local police.

The Washington Guardian has confirmed, DHS and its Customs and Border Protection agency have deployed drones -- originally bought to guard America’s borders -- to assist local law enforcement and other federal agencies on several occasions.

The practice is raising questions inside and outside government about whether federal officials may be creating an ad-hoc, loan-a-drone program without formal rules for engagement, privacy protection or taxpayer reimbursements. The drones used by CPB can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to buy, and have hourly operational costs as well.

In addition, DHS recently began distributing $4 million in grants to help local law enforcement buy its own, smaller versions of drones, opening a new market for politically connected drone makers as the wars overseas shrink.

The double-barreled lending and purchasing have some concerned that federal taxpayers may be subsidizing the militarization of local police forces and creating new threats to average Americans’ privacy.

"We've seen bits and pieces of information on CBP's Predator drones, but Americans deserve the full story," said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that studies privacy issues and has sought information on drone use in the United States. "Drones are a powerful surveillance tool that can be used to gather extensive data about you and your activities. The public needs to know more about how and why these Predator drones are being used to watch U.S. citizens."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), another privacy advocate which is pursuing litigation to force the disclosure of more information from DHS on drones, says it has found that the government has no official policies for how the drones can be used by local police, does not seek compensation from local law enforcement to recoup taxpayers’ expenses and claims it doesn’t keep records on how many times its drones have been deployed for local use.

“CBP's drone program is shrouded in secrecy and legal ambiguity. Despite a specific mission to protect the border from illegal immigration and drug smuggling, CBP continues to let other federal agencies and local law enforcement bureaus use (its drones) for unrelated purposes,” said Amie Stepanvich, Associate Litigation Counsel for EPIC.

Indeed, when the Washington Guardian inquired about how many times DHS or CPB lent drones to local authorities, officials responded they didn’t have a formal loan-a-drone program but did on occasion lend the UAVs to help local police. But they declined to provide an exact number or a list of localities.

“While CBP does not have a ‘loan a drone’ program, we do work with national and sometimes state and local agencies for assistance,” said Ian Phillips, a spokesman for Customs Border and Protection.

Such answers aren’t satisfying to members of Congress worried about the costs to taxpayers and the implications of letting machines built for war to potentially impact privacy inside the United States in the name of security.

“We should not run from our basic constitutional principles because we have fear. That’s the best way I know for us to lose liberty.  And you eventually give up your liberty if fear is your No. 1 guide,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an influential voice on the federal budget.

Local police departments, stretching from the Canadian border in the Midwest to the Mexican border in Texas, confirmed to the Washington Guardian they have summoned CPB drones to help in local police matters ranging from the service of arrest warrants to armed standoffs.

Local SWAT commanders, in fact, said DHS and CPB encouraged the use of the drones to give its unmanned pilots training opportunities.

"CBP reached out to us for training. We have developed a relationship with them, and we can call them when we feel we need their help," explained Sgt. Bill Macki, the leader of the Grand Forks, N.D., SWAT team.

An added bonus for law enforcement is that so far federal officials haven’t asked the local cops to repay the costs. "We have not been charged by CBP for the use of the Predator drone," Macki said.

While ad hoc deployments continue, in May the Department of Homeland Security launched its “Air-based Technologies Program” to hand out grants to help underwrite local law enforcement purchases of their own drones, said John Appleby of DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s division.

The Texas Rangers, another local police agency, confirmed they too have summoned drones on several occasions from CPB, but said they do not keep records of how often.

A recent report by DHS’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, mentioned the Rangers’ use as one of several examples in which CPB has deployed its drones for outside police agencies – both at the federal and local level. 

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also expressed his concern with U.S. drones taking to the skies.

“FAA does not appear to be prioritizing privacy and transparency measures in its plan to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace,” Markey said recently. “While there are benefits to using drones to gather information for law enforcement and appropriate research purposes, drones shouldn’t be used to gather private information on regular Americans.”
Others in Congress are supporting the expansion of drones. At least 60 lawmakers have formed a caucus to support the industry.

Military says drone aircraft are based at or near Mount Washington, NH.
 The police state & warfare state: both couched on a bad idea.
California county postpones hearing on request to buy a surveillance drone for law enforcement.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern has postponed public discussion about his request to purchase a drone for “intelligence and information sharing and dissemination,” claiming it has nothing to do with the concerns raised by privacy advocates.

Interestingly, law enforcement agencies are already benefiting from the data captured by military drones in the United States and indeed drones are being used around the United States by both law enforcement and the military with disturbing frequency.

Even the National Guard uses drones in the United States and the justifications sound eerily similar to those offered by Ahern and others, such as “wildfire surveillance.”

While Ahern recognized that intelligence and information sharing and dissemination is the reason listed for the drone in a document obtained by the ACLU when asked by Stephanie Martin of KQED, he claimed they would be used “during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.”

“We would never use this for anything other than a mission specific event and those events would be: search and rescue, pursuing violent felons, pursuing people evading law enforcement and having the air support during a natural disaster to see the safest routes for people to travel in and out of an area,” Ahern said.

The Oakland Tribune reported, “But a July 20 internal memo from the Sheriff’s Office shows the department identified uses other than search and rescue, including barricaded suspects, investigative and tactical surveillance, intelligence gathering, suspicious persons and large crowd control disturbances.

Ahern says that the discussion was postponed solely because he “had promised to take this matter in front of the Public Safety Committee before I asked the Board of Supervisors to vote on this.”

“There was a previous scheduled meeting for us at the Public Safety Committee but we got postponed,” said Ahern, which led to him pulling the request from the agenda.

However, there is considerable public opposition to the request, as the Daily Caller points out, which led “city officials in Berkeley, California to consider the creation of a “No Drone Zone” in the airspace over the city at the beginning of December 2012.”

Unfortunately, the “No Drone Zone” proposal was eventually shot down by the Berkeley City Council.

While a hearing is supposed to happen in early 2013 at some point, the office of Alameda County Second District Supervisor Richard Valle announced in a January 4 press release that the issue would not be addressed during the January 10 meeting of the Alameda County Public Protection Committee, according to Fremont Patch.

According to KTVU, the state grant to purchase the drone is valued at $31,646 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has “accused the Sheriff’s Office for months of trying to get the device approved without full public discussion.”

“Public policy should not be made by stealth attack. Drones are subject to enormous abuses,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye said. “They can be used for warrantless mass surveillance. There needs to be an open and transparent process for debating the important question of whether a drone is even appropriate in our community and, if so, what safeguards should be in place before we buy a drone.”

Lye also spoke with KQED, raising even more concerns.

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