FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance in 'very narrow' circumstances, says Mueller


The FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance purposes, said outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller before a June 19 Senate panel.

The primacy privacy control the bureau has so far for their use is their scarcity, Mueller also told the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating that FBI seldom employs unmanned aerial vehicles, and for particular cases.

Bureau drone usage "is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particular uses," he said. "That is a principle privacy limitation we have."

The FBI later that afternoon issued a statement that UAVs "allow us to learn critical information that otherwise would be difficult to obtain without introducing serious risk to law enforcement personnel," and cited the case of the Jimmy Lee Dykes barricade situation in Alabama as an example. In it, the Midland, Ala., man took a 5-year-old hostage, holding him in a small underground bunker for nearly 7 days before being fatally shot.

The FBI must obtain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to use UAVs, the FBI statement also notes.

The threat to privacy caused by UAVs has become increasingly urgent as the Federal Aviation Administration works to meet a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for establishing regulations for the widespread integration of UAVs into domestic airspace.  

Existing privacy law doesn't cover UAV surveillance, witnesses told an earlier, March 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. A proposed bill in the House (H.R. 637) sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) would prohibit public sector agencies from flying UAVs without a warrant, subject to exceptions such as border surveillance and emergency situations involving immediate danger.

A handful of states have already passed drone restriction laws; the latest is Texas, following Gov. Rick Perry (R)'s June 14 signature on H.B. 912 (.pdf). The bill, now law, requires that law enforcement have at least "reasonable suspicion" of a crime more serious than a misdemeanor to use a drone for surveillance in pursuit of an individual; police can also use drones in a "high-risk tactical operation that poses a threat to human life" or on private property "generally open to the public where the property owner consents to law enforcement public safety responsibilities." Other exemptions for government use include in post-disaster situations.

Other states have gone further than Texas; earlier this year, Virginia approved H.B. 2012, a law placing a 2 year moratorium on the use of UAVs by state and local law enforcement except in emergencies. Idaho approved S.B. 1134, requiring law enforcement to first obtain a warrant before using UAVs to conduct surveillance, again with an exception when safety is threatened by an emergency. Florida, Montana (.pdf) and Tennessee (.pdf) also approved laws requiring a warrant for law enforcement use of drones.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimony and archived webcast available)
- go to an ACLU webpage tracking state drone use legislation

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Existing privacy law doesn't cover domestic UAV surveillance
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