So Who’s Flying These Drones? Another Freedom of Information Act Suit
We have all heard about the proliferation of drones, first in the Middle East operational theaters, and now, much closer to home. I have even read about the coming of “personal drones”, which I’m sure will soon be available in your Sharper Image and Sky Mall catalogues. But the notion of the government, or Google, dispatching these aircraft is no laughing matter. Earlier this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit, in federal court in San Francisco, against the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The suit was filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and requested the release of records concerning authorizations issued by the Agency to entities “interested in flying unmanned aircraft or drones”. The suit indicated that such drones could be “as small as a hummingbird”. They can “track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet” and from almost 25 miles down range. It alleged that one newly unveiled drone can “crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversation-without the knowledge of help of either the communications provider or the customer”. It claimed that “some have forecast that by the year 2018 there will be ‘more than 15,000 ‘unmanned aircraft systems] in service in the U.S….’”.
The suit noted an increased utilization of drones by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol as well as their usage in catching cattle rustlers, drug dealers and missing persons. Apparently, some law enforcement agencies have proposed their deployment for recording traffic violations.
The suit claimed an increased utilization of drones by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol as well as their usage in catching cattle rustlers, drug dealers and missing persons. Apparently, some law enforcement agencies have even proposed their deployment for recording traffic violations.
The Foundation’s complaint alleged that it had requested the records but, after nine months, the FAA had not responded.
The United States Department of Transportation, on behalf of the FAA, filed an answer to the suit, claiming that (1) the document request implicated information that was protected from disclosure and (2) exceptional circumstances existed that necessitated additional time for compliance.
The court’s record reflects that, over the intervening months, the parties negotiated an agreement over release of the records requested. After the court blessed the agreement, the suit was dismissed. I have reviewed a couple of these FOIA cases and, in both, an agreement for release of documents was quickly reached soon after the filing of the lawsuit.
Since the agreement, the Foundation has published a list of entities named in the records it obtained. See list here Those obtaining Certificates of Authorization to fly drones domestically included the Customs and Border Protection, the military, multiple police departments, various small cities and, for some reason, Cornell, the University of Colorado and Eastern Gateway Community College. Manufacturers applying for authorization to build such aircraft included Honeywell, Raytheon and General Atomics (the manufacturer of the Predator drone).
FOIA requests are clearly one of the most powerful tools ordinary citizens have at their disposal to obtain information that the government would not otherwise provide.