Generally speaking, domestic drone surveillance is a big no-no. Nevertheless local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are finding a way to do it by borrowing drones from US Customs and Border Protection. And, according to a recent FOIA request, it’s happening more and more.
Between 2010 and 2012, Customs and Border Protection flew 687 drone missions for other law enforcement agencies around the country. Those missions included everything from finding missing persons to spying on marijuana farms. The names of many specific law enforcement agencies were blocked out in the flight logs that the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently requested, but the Coast Guard and DEA are believed to be the most drone-hungry agencies.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Demand for drones is on the rise, and the FAA authorised the use of commercial drones for aerial surveillance over six months ago. However, because the FAA will need a couple years to write the rulebook on domestic drone use, law enforcement agencies have had to find an alternative. That’s where the Border Patrol comes in. Once word got out that those drones were up for grabs, demand boomed. “As the other entities found out we were able to fly, and where we were able to fly, the requests started to come up,” former Customs and Border Protection chief David Aguilar told The Washington Post.
Is this a big deal? That depends on your perspective. On one hand, it’s all happening legally and probably for a good cause. On the other hand, it’s sort of the Wild West up there, as the skies remain unregulated for drones. It’s also hard to tell exactly what the drones are doing because Customs and Border Protection refuse to disclose the names of many of the law enforcement agencies using them.