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Group Demands Info on Domestic Drones

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A civil liberties group says the federal government is illegally withholding information on its program authorizing public and private entities to fly drones in the United States.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the U.S. Department of Transportation in a federal AOIA complaint.

Public entities, including the government, must get a wavier from the FAA "to fly an unmanned aircraft in civil airspace," the foundation says. It cites a January 2011 report from the Washington Post that said the FAA acknowledged "there were More than 270 active authorization of the use of dozens of kinds of drones." Of those, 35 percent were held by the Department of Defense, 11 percent by NASA and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the domestic operation of drones, "has been studying ways to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, in part because 'the Defense Department, state and local governments, industry and researchers are all pressuring the FFA to allow wider use of unmanned aircraft.' Congress has also been pushing the FAA to expand authorizations for drones," according to the complaint.

The FAA is part of the Department of Transportation.

"The use of drones in American airspace could dramatically increase the physical tracking of citizens - tracking that can reveal deeply personal details about our private lives," the foundation's attorney Jennifer Lynch in a statement.

"We're asking the DOT to follow the law and respond to our FOIA request so we can learn more about who is flying the drones and why."

The foundation says U.S. Customs and Border Protection bought its ninth drone in December 2011.

"Drones are also increasingly being used for routine state and local law enforcement activities as well, from catching cattle rustlers and drug dealers to finding missing persons. Some within law enforcement have even proposed using drones for recording traffic violations," the complaint states.

The foundation says the FAA is expected to start loosening rules for flying drones as early as this month. But, "there is currently no information available to the public on which specific public and civil entities have applied for, been granted or been denied certificates or authorizations to fly unmanned aircraft in the United States," the foundation says.

It claims that Uncle Sam blew off the FOIA request the foundation submitted on April 13, 2011.

"Despite FAA's acknowledgment, after nearly nine months the FAA has yet to process and release records responsive to EFF's FOIA request. As such, the FAA has exceeded the generally applicable twenty-day deadline for the process of any FOIA request," the complaint states.

The foundation wants to see the records.

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