Drones have constituted the sharp edge of U.S. global counter-terror strategy — flying high over hot spots, surveilling suspects and occasionally launching missiles down at them. Now, scaled down versions are being used right here in the United States. The L.A. Police Department is already using them. And civilians want to harness the power and efficiency of unmanned aircraft as well. The L.A. Times reported last year, “Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.” The federal government appears poised to allow it. But civil liberties groups have raised alarms about potential pitfalls in domestic drone use, including violating the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Now, a lawsuit against the federal government places in the crosshairs the complete lack of public information about just who, exactly, would be operating these drone aircraft over the U.S.
The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) took the issue to the U.S. District Court in Norther California, reports the Washington Post. EFF is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation for information about domestic drones. The suit follows a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which went unheeded by the Department and its subsidiary, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that regulates airways and therefore domestic drone use. The complaint asserts: “There is currently no information available to the public on which specific public and civil entities have applied for, been granted or been denied certificates or authorizations to fly unmanned aircraft in the United States.” EFF spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch told the Post:
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. As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens.
Lynch said a good start towards increasing public knowledge about the programs — and the risks they pose to civil liberties — would be to know who wants to use drones, and who is getting permission to do so. “In my mind, the first step is to get the information from the FAA about who has authorization,” she said. “We don’t really know very much right now.”