Look! In the sky. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…an FBI drone?
That’s right, folks, fresh off revelations that the NSA is collecting phone records and Internet metadata of ordinary Americans who are suspected of no crime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has admitted for the first time that it has used surveillance drones inside the United States.
During congressional testimony on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged that the agency he oversees has used drones inside the United States, though he insisted that reliance on them is limited:
The United States uses drones for surveillance in some limited law enforcement situations, FBI Director Robert Mueller said on Wednesday, sparking additional debate about President Barack Obama’s use of domestic surveillance.
“Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on U.S. soil?” Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa asked during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Yes,” Mueller said, adding that the use was in “a very, very minimal way and very seldom.”
Mueller did not go into detail, but the FBI later released a statement that said unmanned aircraft were used only to watch stationary subjects and to avoid serious risks to law enforcement agents. The Federal Aviation Administration approves each use, the statement said.
This may be the first time that the FBI has admitted to this, but drones have been used inside the United States for a few years. The United States Border Control, for example, has been using unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance along the border with Mexico, the success of which has been underwhelming and costly.
Last year, Congress passed legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Tucked away in that bill was language that expanded use of drones for law enforcement agencies and commercial interests. CBS News recently reported that the commercial drone market could be worth up to $80 billion by 2025.
But as drones bocame the status quo, Americans’ privacy is put at risk. Drones are, given their use by the military in overseas operations, a tool of warfare that could give an uneasy feeling to many people who may see them buzz over their home or workplace.
Perhaps the biggest concern is that there are no guidelines and, as far as we know, no real oversight as to how law enforcement agencies are using drones or if law enforcement agencies will be require to obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance, especially now that the Fourth Amendment, which bars searches without probable cause, is being so easily dismissed by the federal government.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation — S. 3287, the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act — that would prohibt the use of drones inside the United States. His legislation exempts border patrol and imminent threats, such as a terrorist attack.