We tend to think of drones as unmanned planes searching the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan for Al Qaeda and other enemy fighters. But there are plenty of them flying overhead here in the United States, too.
Since 2005, or about 10 years since drones were first used overseas, the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized slightly more than 300 to fly in national airpace. They may be used to survey crops, or to monitor forest fires, or to monitor people.
That last possibility worries civil liberties groups, which fear that some murky practices that originated in wars overseas are finding their way back home.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for privacy rights, sued last week to force the U.S. Department of Transportation to comply with its request for information about drones under the Freedom of Information Act. The organization wants to know who’s authorized to operate them domestically.
“Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans’ movements and activities,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens.”
A spokeswoman for the FAA declined to respond because of the pending litigation.
But the agency says in a fact- sheet that it has already worked with police departments in Houston and Miami on test programs. “One of the most promising potential uses for small unmanned aircraft systems,” it says, “is in law enforcement.”