Recently, outgoing director of the FBI Robert Mueller revealed that his agency has used drones to conduct surveillance in the United States. Mueller’s casual admission serves as an opportune moment for drone enthusiasts: introducing the FBI’s domestic drone programme with nonchalance, he swung wide the door on which drooling police departments have long been banging.
For the past year, law enforcement agencies have tried with varying success to convince their wary constituents that drones are necessary for such innocuous, even beneficent, endeavors as conducting search and rescue operations, detecting forest fires and tracking down wandering Alzheimer patients.
Senator Dianne Feinstein pressed Mueller on the privacy risks drones pose to US citizens, but the FBI director needed only to reassure her that his agency had used drones in a “narrowly focused” way in order to quell any qualms the California Senator and Head of the Senate Intelligence Committee might have had. Hardly a champion of the public’s right to privacy, however, Feinstein distinguishes herself as one of the most vocal opponents of transparency as well as a leader of the government’s war on whistleblowers.
However, others are not so easily appeased.
“The FBI is in its own ball park in terms of rules and techniques. They really have their own rulebook… But local law enforcement has been secretive and very un-transparent about their desires to use drones so this will give them further ammunition that they don’t need guidelines to adopt drones,” said Nadia Kayyali, a legal fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, in an interview with me.
“Troubling that Feinstein notes Americans’ privacy concerns regarding drones, but the[n] has never seen – or apparently requested – the FBI’s privacy limitations that exist to address those concerns,” Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations noted on his blog on June 21.
But the notion that simply writing up and codifying a set of regulations for the domestic use of drones would be a silver bullet that adequately addresses privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns is a dubious one: police departments operate with near total impunity and very little transparency. With no accountability, rules have little meaning – as any grieving family member of someone extra-judicially shot and killed by the police will attest.
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