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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Drone Location Info Isn’t Sensitive, Nonprofit Says

(CN) - Homeland Security should identify counties where it conducts surveillance drone flights over U.S. soil, a digital privacy rights group urged a federal judge.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the agency late last year for information on, among other things, the policies that the department and its component Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had in place for domestic surveillance by unmanned aircraft.

Litigation has since won the digital civil liberties group three years of redacted "daily reports" revealing that the department arranged more than 500 flights for dozens of law-enforcement organizations, and that more than a fifth of these flights helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the EFF says.

The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several branches of the military also received drone assistance as well as several County Sheriff's Offices, the locations of which were redacted.

Both parties have filed motions for summary judgment.

The government argues that the release of specific information about drone flights "might create a risk of circumvention of the law because persons could target their illegal activity in those areas where CBP is not authorized to fly, thus impeding ongoing enforcement activities."

But the EFF says the government has failed to produce evidence to substantiate its fears.

"Despite admitting that numerous investigative techniques related to Predator drone surveillance are publicly known or routine, the government asserts that there are details related to these techniques that still remain secret," its reply brief filed Tuesday states. "Yet, the government fails to provide substantial evidence of the alleged secrecy of these details or any basis for this Court to assess whether the additional disclosure of such details would result in a reasonable risk of circumvention."

The nonprofit noted that the average county size along the U.S.-Mexico border, where most of the drone activity occurs, is 7,573 square miles.

Such sizes make it highly unlikely the release of county-location information would let a particular suspected criminal link drone surveillance to his activity, the EFF claimed.

"Defendant has not rebutted plaintiff's argument that counties in areas where CBP flies are so large, and criminal behavior so prevalent, that it wouldn't affect criminal behavior to release locations of operations and maps related to Predator drone flights or the names of various county sheriffs' departments," the EFF's reply brief states. "As such, this information should be released."

Even if the court finds some of this information should remain confidential, the nonprofit said that the government has not segregated exempt from nonexempt information, as many pages of the government's release contain large blocks of redacted text.

If the court has any doubts about ordering the documents' release, "EFF suggests that in camera inspection of some of all of the records at issue would be appropriate."

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