Border Patrol Drone Fleet Straying Far From The Borders When Not Being Loaned Out To Whatever Agency Comes Asking

from the the-CBP:-everywhere-you-want-to-be dept

“How much spying on Americans is too much spying?” is the question no one seems to be asking, unless prompted by document leaks or a handful of legislators. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has had access to drones for a few years now, mainly using them to (you guessed it) patrol the borders. The immigration legislation that is working its way through Congress seeks to expand the CBP’s drone armada.

This wouldn’t seem to be much of an issue if these drones were used as intended. Instead, the CBP has been acting as a drone lending library, loaning out its drones to other government agencies.

As Congress considers a new immigration law that would expand the fleet of unmanned drones along the border, the agency in charge of border protection is increasingly offering the military-grade drones it already owns to domestic law enforcement agencies and has considered equipping them with “nonlethal weapons,” according to documents recently made public…

The flight logs provided by the agency show that it has become increasingly generous with its unmanned aerial vehicles. They have been used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and the United States Forest Service, among others.

Agencies that have used the 10 Predator drones owned by the Customs and Border Protection Agency have deployed them to investigate fishing violations, search for missing persons and inspect levees along the Mississippi River, among other things.

The uses listed here are acceptable, with the drones acting in an investigative fashion targeting specific areas or activities. The concern is more with the fact that each drone is capable of 20 hours of flight between refuelings and usage by other agencies doesn’t seem to be subject to oversight.

Skeptics say the use of drones raises the prospect of ubiquitous monitoring, especially by law enforcement, and several states have already proposed measures to restrict their use by police.

“What concerns me is the lack of clear, transparent rules for domestic drone use,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from Northern California, who recently introduced legislation to limit their use in domestic airspace. She said she was concerned about “the government’s increased interest in using drones for domestic surveillance and security, including the potential use of force. But the law today has weak requirements for individual privacy protection, transparency of drone use, and limitations on arming drones with weapons.”

The CBP itself has already broadened its usage of the drones, mainly by broadening its definition of the word “border,” according to the EFF.

According to the documents, CBP already appears to be flying drones well within the Southern and Northern US borders, and for a wide variety of non-border patrol reasons. What’s more — the agency is planning to increase its Predator drone fleet to 24 and its drone surveillance to 24 hours per day / 7 days per week by 2016.

The FBI’s usage of these drones is also problematic. A few weeks ago, the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, admitted the FBI was using drones for domestic surveillance, although he claimed it was done in a “very, very minimal, very seldom” way. Mueller said the issue was “worthy of debate and legislation down the road.” One would think the debate and legislation should have preceded the drone usage, but this is how things are done, apparently. Get the fleet up and circling overland before agreeing to discuss it further at some undetermined point in the future.

Not only is there no legislation covering the FBI’s drone usage, but the FBI itself couldn’t even be bothered to whip up some internal controls before sending the drones skyward.

[Mueller] said the FBI was in “the initial stages” of developing privacy guidelines to balance security threats with civil liberty concerns.

As for the CBP, its drone usage is escalating sharply.

CBP’s three years of daily flight logs detail when, where and how the agency flew its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies. These logs show a marked increase in drone flights over the years. In 2010, CBP appears to have flown its Predators about 30 times on behalf of other agencies, but this number increased to more than 160 times in 2011 and more than 250 times in 2012.

While CBP blacked out important information about dates, geographic location of flights, and, in most cases, agency names, these logs do provide some insights into the agency’s drone program. For example, we’ve learned that CBP conducted drone surveillance for law enforcement agencies ranging from the FBI, ICE, the US Marshals, and the Coast Guard to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. These missions ranged from specific drug-related investigations, searches for missing persons, border crossings and fishing violations to general “surveillance imagery” and “aerial reconnaissance” of a given location.

Again, as is the case with the FBI, the CBP has provided no details on what it’s doing to protect the privacy of American citizens. The EFF is calling for a halt of the CBP’s drone flights until it answers a few questions on flight locations, privacy protection and its intentions to arm these drones, with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Not every drone is bad news and they can serve some very important functions. Unfortunately, the agencies using these drones don’t have a very solid track record when it comes to civil liberties. They’ve also demonstrated they’d rather get their drones airborne first, and sort out the impact on American citizens at some point in the future. It’s a clear indication of how these agencies view the rights of Americans: as an annoyance to be dealt with only when forced to.

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Comments on “Border Patrol Drone Fleet Straying Far From The Borders When Not Being Loaned Out To Whatever Agency Comes Asking”

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Mark Harrill (profile) says:


We need a new depeartment to manage all of these drones since each agency is obviously incapable of it. Call it the Federal Use of Drones Department or the FUD for short. They can tell us all the things they are using drones for and assure us that nothing illegal is happening and our civil liberties are protected. It will be reassuring to get such messages from the FUD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You might want to ask a different question:

“How much do these things cost in case I’m caught accidentally destroying one and forced to pay damages?”

And I’m guessing it’s some astronomical amount of money – thanks to taxpayer money being diverted directly to “security technology” companies like those building these drones.

Lord Binky says:

Ok, I can see justification in lending out a drone to assist in a missing persons search for the forest department. Those searches can people additional people at risk and aerial surveillance seems appropriate since it has a very specific and limited scope that can directly save human lives.

Trying to catch fish poachers (or whatever fishing violation they were working on) though starts to seem like they don’t have a better use for the drones…

btr1701 (profile) says:


I just don’t get this obsession over drones. Whether the FBI is surveilling you with a pilot flying a plane or a helicopter or it’s doing it with a drone is irrelevant. It’s the *surveillance* that’s the issue, not the type of aircraft doing it.

Why would there be specific privacy guidelines or legislation for drone use? Shouldn’t these guidelines or regulations apply to use of *all* surveillance aircraft?

Otherwise you’re just going to get the Bureau saying to itself, “Well, we can’t use a drone for this case, because it’s against guidelines, so let’s just put up one of our Cessnas with a hi-def camera attached to the nose and get the same info that we would have gotten from the drone.” The only difference? Unless it’s overtime and they have to pay the pilot a little more, there is none.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Drones

People think surveillance aircraft and think
of an airplane that they can see and hear (not
what is actually used).

And that’s what’s idiotic about this whole things. We’re actually talking about passing laws based on fantasy. You can no more hear or see a small plane flying thousands of feet in the air as it surveils you than you can one of these drones.

Drone conjures up images from the Bourne movie.

Which is exactly the thing we should be basing federal law on– Hollywood cliches. Jesus wept…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Drones

Whether the FBI is surveilling you with a pilot flying a plane or a helicopter or it’s doing it with a drone is irrelevant. It’s the *surveillance* that’s the issue, not the type of aircraft doing it.

Absolutely true. However, drones do make surveillance cheaper and easier and so they are pretty much guaranteed to make the surveillance problem worse.

A bit like how the use of Tasers has increased the amount of unnecessary force used by the police.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Drones

However, drones do make surveillance cheaper
and easier

I don’t know about that. Those Predator drones are pretty damn expensive. Certainly more so than a standard Cessna airplane would be, and you don’t really save anything in manpower costs because you still have to have someone flying the thing. Whether the pilot is sitting in the aircraft or sitting in a control room on the ground, there’s a pilot earning a salary either way.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Drones

If they weren’t cheaper and easier than conventional aircraft, then there wouldn’t be such a large interest in using them.

Not all drones are as high-end as the Predators. That aside, a drone’s operational costs (both in fuel and maintenance) are dramatically lower than an aircraft, and any need for the overtime you mentioned earlier is eliminated.

Also, the pilots don’t even have to be cops or physically anywhere near where the drone is being used. If some small town wanted to use a drone, for instance, they wouldn’t even have to have a pilot on staff. They could outsource the flying to some third-party drone operating company.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Drones

If they weren’t cheaper and easier than
conventional aircraft, then there wouldn’t
be such a large interest in using them.

They’re cheaper than the fighter planes they were designed to replace, and the pilots are a helluva lot safer from ground fire, which is the main reason for their proliferation. But as a domestic surveillance platform? A good old fashioned prop plane or helicopter is still the way to go from a financial standpoint.

MQ-1B Predator Drone Unit Cost: $20 million (includes four aircraft with sensors, ground control station and Predator Primary satellite link) (fiscal 2009 dollars)

Cessna Skycather – $149,000/aircraft. ($596,000 for four of them)

Bell 407 Helicopter – $900,000/aircraft ($3,600,000 for four of them)

So you can see that purchasing traditional aircraft is vastly less expensive than buying these fancy drones.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Drones

Those Predator drones are pretty damn expensive. Certainly more so than a standard Cessna airplane would be, and you don’t really save anything in manpower costs because you still have to have someone flying the thing.

True enough. But then those are top-of-the-line toys for, among other things, battlefields. If it’s just watching joe public you’re interested in the pricetag is rather less. I know someone who basically built his own drone capable of fairly long range ariel photography on a pre-programmed flight path. Far as I know he didn’t spend more than a couple of thousand on it…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Drones

Here it is, I was waiting for it.

The old “It’s the same as a pilot looking out the window!” fallacy.

For one, a pilot can’t sit in the air for twenty hours a day. Nor does a pilot have telescopic vision that can see in the dark or see through walls with advanced IR cameras.

Plus the most important thing: the pilot is responsible for his actions while he is piloting the aircraft. He answers to ground control, he writes the flight logs, and he can be subpenaed. You can’t do that with a robot. You can’t drag the drone into court to answer whether it did or did not spy onto someone’s property.

The drone is accountable for nothing and it’s controls and flight plan might as well been written by ghosts because it would be impossible to get any of these three letter agencies to name names when it comes to who writes up their plans and who is controlling them. They are people sitting in a bunker in an undisclosed location and therefore invisible to the law and any accountability they have while they are flying it.

So you can take your “It’s just a pilot! A robot pilot!” fallacy and stick it in your ear. Let me know when that robot pilot writes a flight log that becomes part of public flight record.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Drones are Over-Rated

If you are in an automobile in a city, and someone is trying to pursue you in an airplane, you have one great advantage– you can stop and start and turn, much faster than they can. The simplest way to shake off an airborne tail in an urban area would be to pull a lot of turns, left, right, and U. Do a Uuey, as the saying goes. Half the time you would be hidden by buildings, and the aircraft pilot could only guess where you were and which direction you were going in. You can duck under awnings and underpasses, and through parking garages, etc. Since most automobiles are made in a few identical types, in a few colors, a million cars or more being more or less identical, and since license plates are not designed to be read from the air, it would be very difficult for the pilot to find the right automobile again after loosing contact. In attempting to keep up with an automobile, the pilot might very well become disoriented, and wind up crashing into a building. A city _is_ where there are a million different people you could meet and deal with. If you need to meet with someone physically, without anyone knowing about it, you go downtown to do it, or at least to pick them up. You don’t drive off into the wilderness. At the other end of the line, of course, you have a house with an indoor garage, so the drone can’t see who or what you’ve brought home with you.

What a drone can do efficiently is to fly over the National Forest, spot patches of cannabis in road-less areas (grown by local yokels), and squirt them with herbicide. Of course, in a remote area, aircraft engines (or, more precisely, propellers and rotors) can be heard for miles, and the local yokels have ample time to vanish into the trees. That really doesn’t have a lot in the way of political dimensions.

Fishing protection works out to flying out a hundred miles offshore, overflying a Chinese fishing ship, and observing that it has its giant nets out, and is fishing rather than traveling. A drone is not a practical means to find out if someone is dynamiting trout in a stream somewhere in the Rockies. The drone can’t look in the man’s basket, and find ten or twenty trout.

There is only a limited range of economic activity which is systematically done in the open. Mining, a good deal of construction, most agriculture, nearly all hunting, and some transportation. Manufacturing is normally done under a roof, as is most trading, and nearly all information processing, and human services such as education and health-care. As a general principle, it is easier to do nearly all kinds of work if you are not being rained or snowed on, and if the wind is not blowing your working materials around, and if it is not freezing-cold or ninety degrees hot. You are only talking about five percent of the population or less doing things which could reasonably be observed by air. Furthermore, this is a shrinking five percent. In almost any area you want to name, it is highly profitable to move things indoors. Houses are becoming prefab. Railroad terminals are often underneath buildings. Good luck trying to use a drone to observe someone getting off one train in New York’s Penn Station and getting on other one. The result is he turns up in Philadelphia when you thought he was going to Far Rockaway. At every stage of civic improvements, transportation infrastructure winds up further underground. Even in agriculture, new and more efficient gro-lamps are making it more practical for, say, tomatoes to be grown indoors. In an underground greenhouse, with hydroponics and all, it is comparatively simple to control bugs and weeds, without using chemicals.

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Drones are Over-Rated

I don’t have the time or inclination to point out all of your fallacies. Two will have to do.

1) Drones need not have the abilities and limitations of airplanes. Quadracopters are quite capable of keeping up with the twists and turns a human can make. Though heading into a building might foil them at the present. Drones the size of a preying mantis could be launched from the mother drone and follow an individual into a building. If that tech isn’t here, it will be soon.

2) One of the differences between a drone and a human pilot, is that it takes one man to pilot a plane. Multiple drones can be set up to monitor enormous areas with just a few people. Then if something significant occurs, the time and places of interest can scanned by computer for face recognition, following an individuals movements.

There are many other issues as to just why drones are a far greater privacy risk than planes. I leave it to the reader to think of some.

pcrooker (profile) says:

non-lethal weapon

So, just what is a non-lethal weapon? A tazer? That has been lethal. Tear gas? Itching powder? Christmas fruit cake? (no, that really is lethal), expressed mothers milk? – they don’t let that on planes, so must be lethal….

So they have “considered” equipping the drones with these. Did they come to any conclusions, like, OK we’ll equip the drones? Did they carry it out?


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