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FBI uses drones on US soil: Senators want assurances on privacy

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the FBI is using drones to conduct secret surveillance on US citizens. Many lawmakers seemed surprised.

Even as President Obama was calling for prudence in the use of drones Wednesday to an audience in Berlin, over on Capitol Hill came new revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using drones to conduct secret surveillance on US citizens.

The disclosure came during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which FBI Director Robert Mueller was asked whether his agency is considering buying drones – and if so, how it’s planning on using them.

The FBI already uses drones to conduct surveillance, Mr. Mueller told lawmakers, many of whom seemed surprised to hear this.

Striking an optimistic note, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa offered, “I think I can assume since you do use drones that the FBI has developed a set of policies and procedures and operational limits on the use of drones and whether or not [they have] any privacy impact on American citizens.”

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“We are in the initial stages of doing that,” Mueller replied.

Absorbing this information, Senator Grassley wanted to know whether the FBI uses drones “for surveillance on US soil.”

“Yes,” was Mueller’s reply.

Mueller then endeavored to provide context, stressing that drones are used “in a very, very minimal way – and very seldom.”

At the moment, the “footprint” for the drones is “very small,” he added. “We have very few and [they are] of limited use, and we’re exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use.”

What, precisely, are those guidelines?, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California wanted to know.

On this point, Mueller didn’t appear to have many specifics. 

“It’s generally used in a particular incident, were you to need that capability,” he said. “I will have to go back and check in terms of what we keep in terms of images and the like.”

In one of the only known public cases, the FBI used surveillance drones round-the-clock this past February to monitor the scene of a kidnapping standoff in Alabama before hostage rescue teams moved in.

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With most Americans unaware that the FBI is using drones for surveillance on US soil, and with the top FBI official unclear on the privacy parameters of their use, privacy advocates fear that the technology is quickly outpacing what are still vague policy guidelines.

“This is the first I’ve heard that the FBI is using drones: I was a little surprised,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We think it’s problematic that the FBI seems to be going forward with the use of drones without the appropriate statutory framework,” he adds, noting that Mueller “didn’t seem to be at all familiar with what that framework is.”

Last year, Mr. Obama signed a bill directing the Federal Aviation Administration to further open US airspace to drones for both public and private use. Even before then, the number of permits that the FAA issued to organizations to fly drones more than doubled, from 146 in 2009 to 313 in 2011. The bulk of permits have gone to the US military.

In terms of drones used by law enforcement agencies, most of them are not permitted by fly above 400 feet. The FAA also generally mandates that the aircraft are not allowed to fly more than 15 minutes and cannot fly in greater than 15-knot winds.

Furthermore, these drones cannot be equipped with any weapons, and law-enforcement groups must maintain visual contact with the aircraft at all times.

Nevertheless, some states are taking action. Last week, Texas passed a law, the Texas Privacy Act, to severely restrict the use of drones for surveillance.

It prohibits the use of a drone to capture an image “without the express consent of the person who owns” it. The legislation also prevents drones from collecting sounds and smells without permission.

“Two to four years from now, it’ll be impossible to get legislation passed because every law enforcement agency will want drones,” state Rep. Lance Gooden (R), who proposed the legislation, told the Monitor in February, adding that he fears the drone lobby is growing increasingly powerful.

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This was a concern echoed Wednesday by Senator Feinstein, as she cited “the booming industry of commercial drones.”

“I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone and the use of the drone and the very few regulations on it today,” she said.

“It is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized needs,” Mueller attempted to reassure her. “That is the principal privacy limitations we have.”

“I would like to get that information,” Feinstein said. “It would be helpful to us legislatively.”

“I would be happy to do that,” Mueller told her.