DRONES AND CIVIL LIBERTIES
by Suzelle, CLMP
Interviewed by Bonnie Blackberry and Robie Tenorio on The Civil Liberties Hour on KMUD Radio, 7 pm, Apr. 3, 2013, Parker Higgins of the San Francisco-based ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION
(EFF) explained: â€śThe EFF is a digital civil liberties group, focused on civil liberties issues like freedom of speech and privacy as they intersect with technology. For a long time that has been mostly defending peopleâ€™s rights on the web and when they use their devises, but increasingly that has come to include privacy that involves electronic surveillance. Weâ€™ve been working on DRONES from that perspective, as a way to insure that people have the same kind of privacy that they expect when thereâ€™s technology like these surveillance machines involved. Weâ€™ve pushed for government transparency on this. Weâ€™ve gotten the documents from the FAA (Federal Aeronautics Administration) on whoâ€™s allowed to fly DRONES and on what exactly the regulations are.â€ť
Shown on their website, eff.org, EFF has filed a number of Freedom of Information Act (FIA) requests to the FAA, and Robie commented that she â€śwas shocked about the escalation during the last few years of the agencies wanting to use drones.â€ť Parker replied, â€śPart of this is because of a law that Congress passed last year, called the FAA Modernization Act that required the FAA to put regulations in place for licensing drone use by 2015. And part of this is just a function of technology. A lot of the same components that we use, for example, in smart phones are used to build drones, so as the cost for that has come down, and especially as the need for military drones overseas has calmed down a little bit, weâ€™re seeing a lot more pushing from the drone industry, and law enforcement especially, to fly drones domestically.â€ť
One of the FIA requests was to have an updated list of police departments that want drones. EFF is a non-profit organization and a law firm, â€śAbout half the staff is lawyers,â€ť Parker said, â€śand we have the resources to follow up on the requests with lawsuits. . .And we needed to do that in the case of the FAA. . . Weâ€™ve got ongoing lawsuits with the FAA, and also weâ€™ve asked the Department of Homeland Security for information about how it uses the drones that it flies on the US border. And since they didnâ€™t respond in a timely manner to our FIA request there, we filed the lawsuit against that department too.â€ť Explaining further, â€śThe Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ten Predators, the larger version â€“ Predator-V drones, that they fly on the US border. And they do surveillance. Itâ€™s part of the Customs Border Protection Agency. And we also know that, at least in some cases, they loaned these to police departments. . .but we donâ€™t yet know exactly under what conditions the DHS will loan their drones out. So thatâ€™s why weâ€™re issuing that lawsuit.
â€śBut then also, there are some drones that are much smaller, like the size of a shoebox, and thatâ€™s the kind of drones that police departments across the country are applying to get. Where these really large Predator drones cost tens of millions of dollars, these smaller drones cost tens of thousands. For now they can only stay in the air for maybe twenty minutes at a time.â€ť
Asked about the possibility of drones being equipped with tasers or rubber bullets, Parker confirmed that manufacturers have said they could, â€śBut so far we have only seen them used in surveillance by police departments.â€ť
The potential for air-traffic problems was addressed, â€śSome of these drones that are flying autonomously donâ€™t have the same kind of sense and avoid feedback that real pilots do.â€ť And CLMP noted on the website that â€śthe FAA estimates that as many as 30,000 drones will be flying in the US skies by 2020.â€ť â€śWow!â€ť And Parker said, â€śSome of the ones seen in military applications can fly incredibly high, and when theyâ€™ve got high-definition cameras, it doesnâ€™t slow them down at all, but it makes it so that people on the ground wonâ€™t know theyâ€™re getting surveilled, so it makes it really different from something like a helicopter.â€ť CLMP noted that on the website it said that cameras can scan entire cities, and alternately zoom in and read a milk carton from 60,000 feet.
And, Parker said, â€śDrones can be programmed to follow a single individual or a license plate. Or in some cases, weâ€™re hearing about drones that are equipped with sensors, not cameras but other sensors, that can detect heat or detect chemicals, and follow that, so itâ€™s not exactly being controlled by a human at that point.â€ť
There are also some positive aspects, such as universities using them for agricultural research and for teaching drone use in journalism, and Search and Rescue Team use, Parker conceded, â€śBut we just want to make sure that your privacy rights around law enforcement and what kind of video is allowed to be used as evidence; we want to make sure that we get that framework in place.â€ť
EFF is advocating for local and state laws and, â€śsome 35 States have introduced legislation that is aimed at limiting drone use. The better cases are aimed specifically at limiting the kinds of incidental footage that can be captured by drones and used as evidence. . . Thatâ€™s a real vote for what the public thinks a reasonable expectation of privacy is.â€ť In California, statewide legislation has been introduced, but it hasnâ€™t advanced very far. â€śIn Alameda County, Berkeley, San Francisco, this is being discussed at great length between the County Supervisors and the Sheriff. . .Whenever theyâ€™ve held hearings, they are held for packed rooms, and people are very concerned about the use of DRONES.â€ť
EFF is finding alliances with people across the various political divides, â€śBecause this is an issue that really doesnâ€™t break down along party lines. This is a civil rights issue, and civil liberties. And thatâ€™s something that, for the most part, everyone can agree on.â€ť Congress has called a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the â€śFuture of Drones in America, Law Enforcements and Privacy.â€ť Parker said, â€śItâ€™s really captured the publicâ€™s attention. And itâ€™s poised to really change the way that privacy law works in this country.â€ť And Bonnie commented that â€śThere are two bills that have been introduced, one by Representative Poe from Texas, Preserving Americanâ€™s Privacy Act, and then Representative Markey from Massachusetts filed a Drones, Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, and both of those require warrants for use of drones by law enforcement and regulate data collection and disclosure, which basically is transparency.â€ť
People called in with very thoughtful questions and concerns. Hear the whole interview on KMUD archives, or for a copy of the complete transcript, call CLMP at 923-4646.
Bonnie concluded â€śOne thing that people can do is to contact their governmental representatives here in California, and in Washington D.C., and let them know what we think, and also support organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are doing this important work.â€ť