CBP 'Discovers' An Additional 200 Drone Flights It Didn't Originally Include In Its FOIA Response

from the it's-amazing-what-a-little-legal-battle-can-do-for-responsiveness dept

The EFF is still uncovering more usage of CBP (Customs and Border Protection) drones by other agencies and far away from what anyone would consider to be the “border.” The CBP apparently “forgot” to list several other flights on the tally sheet forced out of its hands by the EFF’s FOIA lawsuit.

Customs & Border Protection recently “discovered” additional daily flight logs that show the agency has flown its drones on behalf of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on 200 more occasions more than previously released records indicated.

Last July we reported, based on daily flight log records CBP made available to us in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, that CBP logged an eight-fold increase in the drone surveillance it conducts for other agencies. These agencies included a diverse group of local, state, and federal law enforcement—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.

The new data brings the number of flights up from 500 to 700 over a two-year period and adds several new names to the list of patrons of the CBP’s drone lending library. Unfortunately, lawsuit or not, the CBP still refuses to release the names of some of the law enforcement agencies which have borrowed its drones, claiming (of course) that doing so would “jeopardize ongoing investigations.” In some cases, this may be true, but as the EFF points out, there are others where naming names wouldn’t do much to narrow down when and where the drones were used.

[A]s we pointed out in our summary judgment brief, disclosing that CBP was working with, for example, the Pima County, Ariz. Sheriff’s Department would not be specific enough to affect any particular criminal operation. It would hardly be surprising that CBP was working with Pima County because it shares a border with Mexico. It is also—at 9,200 square miles—one of the larger counties in Arizona and has one of the highest crime rates of any county in the country—a rate of 4,983 crimes per 100,000 people. Given the large geographic size of and crime rate in this county and others like it, it is hard to imagine that releasing information about which county sheriff’s department CBP is working with would enable suspected criminals in the area to link CBP’s drone surveillance to their particular criminal activity.

Not only is the usage more widespread than previously indicated by the CBP’s first response, but the use of sophisticated technology meant for war zones has been deployed along our borders as well as potentially far inland. The EFF notes that the VADER surveillance system, which was developed for use in the war in Afghanistan and can detect the presence of people from 25,000 feet in the air, has been in use by the CBP since 2011 and has been used by 30 other agencies since that point.

Equally as troubling, considering the growing number of agencies using the CBP’s drones, is the fact that data and info gathered is likely being held onto indefinitely.

CBP states in its PIA [Privacy Impact Assessment] that it stores data unassociated with a particular investigation for no more than 30 days, but much, if not most of this data will be associated with an investigation and may therefore be stored indefinitely—even if it includes footage of property, vehicles and people unassociated with the investigation.

As we’ve covered before, many law enforcement agencies are deploying drones and other surveillance technology well ahead of crafting usage guidelines and privacy considerations. Borrowing a drone indicates the agency likely doesn’t already have one — which also indicates it doesn’t have anything in place to govern its use or disposal of unneeded or incidental data. Anything deemed potentially relevant will be kept and agencies — especially those without rules on the books about drone usage — are under no self-imposed obligation to rid themselves of incidental data.

The EFF has released an updated compilation of CBP drone flights based on the CBP’s “discoveries” with the new information helpfully highlighted, including the addition of a mysterious entity designated only as “Local PD Officer.” The CBP’s inability to include all “responsive” info in its first release (back in July of last year) means this new data dump probably isn’t complete either. Refusing to release names of the law enforcement agencies taking advantage of the CBP’s seemingly indiscriminate loaning program does nothing to prevent future abuse by providing cover for agencies without surveillance guidelines or controls in place.

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Comments on “CBP 'Discovers' An Additional 200 Drone Flights It Didn't Originally Include In Its FOIA Response”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is pretty awful, making undocumented surveillance flights. The truly sad thing is that I expect the “But drones are just like a guy flying a plane looking out the window!” tools to flood in soon and completely miss the point as to why undocumented flights is exactly the reason surveillance by drones should be feared and scowled upon.

(Hint for the slowpokes: A guy looking out the window of a plane still has to answer to ground control and could still face criminal charges if he violates his flight plan! A robot has no such limitations!)

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