LOOK OUT ABOVE: The FBI is already using drones and other federal law enforcement agencies plan to follow.
LOOK OUT ABOVE: The FBI is already using drones and other federal law enforcement agencies plan to follow.

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org – Drones can go places that traditional airplanes cannot go, and see things that people flying in traditional airplanes cannot see.

But the federal Department of Justice is using the same policies for drones and other “unmanned aerial vehicles” as it uses for traditional aircraft.  The Justice Department’s Inspector General says that raises some privacy concerns because of the unique capabilities of drones.

“Unlike manned aircraft, (drones) can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence,” auditors wrote in the report released this month.

The auditors recommended that theFederal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies inside the Justice Department develop drone-specific policies.

Four agencies within the Department of Justice have plans to deploy drones in the United States.  The FBI has already done so, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have plans to use drones in future operations.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals have begun testing drones, but told auditors they have no current plans to deploy them.

In response to the audit, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General convened a working group in August to study the privacy concerns of drone technology.

“This working group will make a recommendation to DOJ leadership on the need for any DOJ policies or guidance specific to UAS, and will work to develop any such policies or guidance as needed,” wrote Trisha Anderson, an attorney for the Justice Department, in an official response to the audit.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said no federal agency should be allowed to use drones without strong guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy.

“We urge the Justice Department to make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology,” he said.

Stanley said Congress should pass legislation to require law enforcement to get judicial approval before deploying drones.

From 2004 to May 2013, the Justice Department spent $3.7 million on drone technology, with the FBI accounting for 80 percent of the total, auditors reported.

Contact Eric Boehm at eboehm@watchdog.org

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