Drones to Spy Using Infrared Tech Domestically

April 21, 2013 in Top News, U.S. News

The Boeing A160 Hummingbird UAV Helicopter

The Boeing A160 Hummingbird UAV helicopter in flight. Source: EFF.

Infrared detection technology helped in the success of last week’s effort to apprehend alive one of the two key Boston Marathon bombing suspects. It was one of numerous technological elements proving the immense power of law enforcement agencies and resources when purposefully and efficiently combined. Civil liberties organizations are examining this among other technologies for the potential abuses likely to emerge from unrestricted monitoring of the general public.

Research by the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed last August that the overall focus of developing drone flights in the United States has been for purposes of surveillance testing.

According to the EFF, “The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone ‘can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.’ Not to be outdone, the Seattle Police Department’s drone comes with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light ‘dusk-dawn’ video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment. The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of ‘critical law enforcement operations’.”

The EFF’s findings and conclusions are based in large part on recently received extensive documentation from the FAA ─ acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. This material contains extensive details on both domestic drone use, both public and private, and includes special airworthiness certificates from all private companies licensed to operate drones.

Only a limited number of entities are cleared to operate drones at this time, but by law that is scheduled already to change. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 signed by President Barack Obama in February last year directs the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft systems or vehicles  ─ drones  ─ into the national airspace system by September, 2015.

The EFF currently refers public queries to MuckRock online for information on how specific local law enforcement agencies may be using drones. The EFF and MuckRock have partnered to enable any individual or organization to determine what organizations are “planning, deploying or budgeting for drone deployments now or in the future. … a national census for government drone usage.” The MuckRock resource is free and can be used anonymously.

Reporting on these matters is reaching beyond niche readerships. In March Scientific American published on the subject, “As Spy Drones Come to the U.S., We Must Protect Our Privacy” and emphasized – among other points – that widespread adoption of drones with video capabilities will greatly reduce both cost and risk in the trade-offs that law enforcement agencies must consider in conducting and expanding surveillance activities. Their commentary has been widely reported across the internet, indicating a high level of interest and concern among Americans about how these technologies are to be used.

Information and empowerment efforts appear to be converging with regard to drone surveillance. News coverage addressing privacy concerns over these technologies is not simply growing as a journalistic exercise. Proliferation and distribution of tools to actively monitor and resist abuses of such technologies appear to be keeping pace with the publicizing of those threats.