The U.S. Customs and Border Protection bureau has loaned predator drones to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies even more frequently than previously released records show, raising serious privacy concerns among some critics.
New documents show that outside agencies borrowed the CBP's drones 700 times between 2010 and 2012, 200 more times than daily flight logs made available in July indicated, reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation
, a civil liberties group that filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the documents.
The logs and a list of agencies using the drones show a sharp increase not only in the overall number of flights but also in the number of flights for certain federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to the foundation. The number of flights for those two agencies totaled 53 and 20 respectively.
They also reveal that CBP drones were used an additional 32 times on behalf of state and local agencies, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Drug Task Force. The foundation said the drones were also used by a number of other state and local agencies as well.
In addition, the sophisticated Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, or VADAR as its known, was used much more frequently on the flights for outside agencies than thought, the foundation noted in its report on the flights. The sensor, which can detect the presence of people from up to 25,000 feet, was initially developed for use in Afghanistan.
Even before the release of the new documents, civil liberties advocates had argued that the use of such equipment could lead to surveillance of American citizens and have serious privacy implications.
There has been enough concern that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue Wednesday, reports The Washington Post
Currently, the use of drone flights in the U.S. are restricted for safety reasons, and CBP is one of the few agencies other than the military that the Federal Aviation Administration allows to use unmanned aircraft inside the country's borders on a regular basis. But the demand for more drone use is growing, according to the Post.
David Aguilar, CBP acting chief until he retired last year, told the Post that requests for help with surveillance jumped after outside agencies learned of its drone abilities.
"As the other entities found out we were able to fly, and where we were able to fly, the requests started to come up," he said.
Aguilar maintained that the requests were granted on the basis of a law enforcement need or a public safety emergency. "There was a sensitivity attached to this," he noted.
The foundation noted in its report on the drone flights that Customs and Border Protection usually flies in support of its main mission of border security.
"Yet these records indicate just how blurred that mission has become," wrote Jennifer Lynch, the foundation's senior staff attorney.
In addition, Lynch said, "These sensors are becoming more sophisticated every day, and it won't be long before surveillance capabilities like 'facial recognition or soft biometric recognition, which can recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender, and skin color' are added to CBP's arsenal.
"We need to address these issues before that happens," she added.
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