by Noel Brinkerhoff
Government watchdog groups are concerned that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been loaning out sophisticated, expensive drones to local law enforcement, and in the process turning the military’s hottest new weapon on Americans.
In one of the first known instances of domestic drone use, in 2011 DHS loaned one of its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to police in North Dakota in order to spy on a farmer, Thomas Brossart, who had refused to give back some cows that had wandered onto his property. The Brossart case was the first known drone-aided arrest.
The Washington Guardian reports that since then, DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) have deployed drones several other times to help local law enforcement and other federal agencies.
The problem with the loan-a-drone program, according to critics, is that it is being operated on an ad-hoc basis with no established regulations for how and when to use them, or how to protect Americans’ privacy, or how to make sure taxpayers are reimbursed for the loaners.
After all, CPB’s drones can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to purchase, not to mention their hourly operational costs.
Between loan-a-drone and DHS giving out $4 million in grants to help police buy their own drones, good government groups are concerned that homeland security is subsidizing the militarization of local police forces.
“Drones are a powerful surveillance tool that can be used to gather extensive data about you and your activities,” Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which studies privacy issues, told the Washington Guardian. “The public needs to know more about how and why these Predator drones are being used to watch U.S. citizens.”