(CN) – The FBI has been deploying unmanned aircraft for domestic surveillance for seven years, though the agency first acknowledged their use in July, the Justice Department’s inspector general reported Thursday.
FBI Director Robert Mueller revealed the program’s existence during congressional testimony. The inspector general’s first audit of the program reveals that it did not develop specific policies to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens or the integrity of the evidence the drones purport to collect, the audit found.
The FBI and the Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which started researching and testing its own program in 2011, told the inspector general’s office that they did not develop drone-specific policies because they were not practically different from manned aircraft.
Federal agents have only deployed the aircraft under “very limited circumstances to support operations where there was a specific operational need,” such as a Midland City, Ala., hostage crisis in January 2013, according to the audit.
Still, Inspector General Michael Horowitz recommended beefing up additional privacy protections that drones require.
“Unlike manned aircraft, UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence with UAS,” the unsigned report states.
The Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Marshals Service reported that they have been testing drones but have no plans to fly them.
Together, agencies within the Justice Department have spent $3.7 million on unmanned aircraft, with the FBI accounting for 80 percent of that budget.
The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) allocated roughly $27 million in law enforcement grants to seven local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits, including $1.2 million that has gone toward drone development.
The inspector general hammered these agencies for insufficiently tracking the awards.
By far, the biggest collector of such grants was Eastern Kentucky University, which accepted a $13.3 million cooperative agreement in 2003. Only $200,000 of that amount went toward an “early UAS prototype and software” and its “limited field testing,” which was being considered for use by rural law enforcement.
For what purpose, the report does not say.
The university’s agreement has since expired, and the prototype that it created is now in the custody of another Kentucky nonprofit, the Center for Rural Development, which collected a more than $7.2 million grant this year.
Police in Gadsen, Ala., used $150,000 of their $446,165 award to stop methamphetamine trafficking until the program crashed – literally.
“In 2009, it attempted to use the UAS to perform one surveillance mission,” the audit states. “However, Gadsden Police Department officials stated that during the mission the ground control station lost communication with the UAS, causing the UAS to collide with a tree. Officials told us that they believe that the rugged topography (hills and valleys) of the mission area led to the communication problem.”
The department has since parked its drone in a “secure storage facility,” and the program has stalled.
Police departments in North Little Rock, Ark., and Miami-Dade, Fla., also spent just a fraction of their respective $330,000 and $150,000 awards on drones, which they say they have never used operationally.
Miami-Dade police reported that they obtained a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to use drones “only within the defined perimeter of a crime scene, such as a hostage crisis.”
According to the audit, the Justice Department did not track whether grant recipients had legal jurisdiction to fly drones when it handed out the money.
“If the recipient is unable to obtain a COA or cannot legally operate a UAS, taxpayer funds used to purchase it are wasted as the UAS remains in storage and becomes obsolete,” the audit states.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the nature of the $27 million grants awarded by OJP and COPS. These represented awards that included programs toward drone development rather than money exclusively meant for that purpose.
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