FBI and Drones: Together for Years, Says Justice Department Watchdog

A Justice Department watchdog recently revealed that, yes, the FBI has been tracking criminal activity in the United States using drones – since 2006.

What it hasn’t done, says he watchdog, is create a strategy of codified rules to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. But does it have to?

The FBI drone endeavor, which began years before it was previously acknowledged by the Bureau, has come with a price tag of more than $3 million, and that’s just from May through September of this year. The FBI now says it has plans to expand its use of drones into the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

This information is revealed in a new, thirty-five page report that was recently released by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The report also reveals that the ATF has already begun testing of drones and has spent more than $600,000 to do so.

The U.S. Marshalls Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration has also purchased small drones and conducted tests with them, although they told auditors they have no plans to deploy them for operational use in the near future.

The Ins and Outs of Drones

Drones are unarmed crafts that are inexpensive to operate (at just about $25 an hour to operate, versus more than $650 for a piloted helicopter or aircraft) and easy to fly, due to their small size and light weight (about 55 pounds).

Drones have been used successfully in a number of high-profile cases, such as in Midland City, Alabama, during a hostage stand-off. During this case, the FBI was able to view a small entrance to a bunker where a small body was being held hostage, thereby allowing agents to observe the actions of both the captor and the hostage and successfully rescue the boy and kill the abductor.

Outside of the federal government, the Justice Department has also given local police departments more than $1.2 million to purchase small drones for use in crime scene examinations and during reconnaissance and surveillance operations.

Drones and Privacy Concerns

Due to their small size and the relative ease at which they can observe and monitor situations without being noticed, some groups have raised concerns over privacy issues and the collection of evidence, the watchdog reports.

However, Robert Mueller, ex-FBI Director, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the drones have been used “very seldom” and in a “very minimal way.” He also testified that, although the use of drones has been very small, the Bureau has nonetheless begun exploring guidelines for their use; specifically, aerial surveillance and privacy issues regarding small aircraft. Mueller also stated that the use of drones may justify debate and legislation down the road.

Although there have been concerns with privacy, the FBI has not revised its policies on drone use, the watchdog says, because they believe these aerial surveillance devices are not unlike piloted aircraft used for surveillance and that all agents receive “supervisory approval” to ensure compliance with all aviation laws and policies before conducting a drone mission.

However, the agency watchdog argues that a separate policy may be needed for the use of small drones, as they can hover in areas that may be deemed private and remain there much longer than traditional aircraft.

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