Monday, April 23, 2012

FBI and police free to launch drones in sky over U.S. cities

City police forces were also drawing up plans to use the reconnaissance aircraft 

The American skies may soon be full of drones after it was disclosed that domestic law enforcement agencies, from the FBI to local police, have been granted permission to deploy the unmanned aircraft.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show that more than 50 non-military organizations have asked to fly drone aircraft, many of which can carry cameras and surveillance equipment for spying, within the US.

The figures from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that aims to defend Americans from digital snooping by government, showed that agencies such as the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice had been cleared to launch drones.

More alarmingly, city police forces were also drawing up plans to use the reconnaissance aircraft, which are more usually associated with top secret missions against terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Police chiefs in Miami, Seattle and even North Little Rock, a city in Arkansas of less than 70,000 people, were all cleared by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to launch drones within their jurisdictions.

A spokesman for the North Little Rock Police Department told the Wall Street Journal that it was only using its unmanned helicopter for training over unpopulated areas but hoped to eventually fly it above crime-ridden neighborhoods and use it to gather intelligence for major drug cases.

In one of the few examples of an application being rejected, the FAA refused to sign off on a request by campus police at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a force tasked with protecting and keeping order among the university’s 20,000 students. In response to the revelation both Democrats and Republicans in Congress last week wrote to the FAA demanding that it take into account privacy concerns before approving deployments.

“We must ensure that as drones take flight in domestic airspace, they don’t take off without privacy protections for those along their flight path,” said Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who co-chairs the Congressional Privacy Caucus.

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