Drones have been used by Customs and Border Patrol for several years now to surveil the borders. Photo: CBP
Late last year, we reported that the U.S. Border Patrol had lent out its Predator drones 500 times over the past three years. Scratch that, because “newly discovered” data shows that it’s actually been 700 times.
The new numbers were reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has been submitting FOIA requests to the agency about its drone use over the last several years. According to EFF, Customs and Border Patrol released the new data just prior to court hearings scheduled for December 2013. CBP said that it “discovered that it did not release all entries from the daily reports for 2010-2012” when asked to via EFF’s FOIA.
And it seems like CBP may have had reason to conveniently misplace these records: The latest information reveals that 53 of the additional 200 flights were taken by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and 20 flights were taken by the Drug Enforcement Agency—uses that are highly likely to be related to criminal activity. The new records also show that CBP lent its drones out to previously unnamed agencies such as the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Drug Task Force.
The fact that border patrol is lending out its drones to law enforcement groups is not particularly new information—it’s been doing that for several years now. Basically, CBP has several Predator drones that apparently don’t get much use along the northern and southern borders, and federal, state, and local agencies are allowed to request the use of them if they feel they have a case where it’s necessary. The exact parameters of when an agency may use a CBP drone still haven’t been disclosed, and it’s one of the things that transparency groups like EFF are actively pushing to be released.
So far, all we really know for sure is that CBP's Predator drones have only been publicly acknowledged to have been used to make one arrest, of a North Dakotan cattle rancher named Rodney Brossart in 2011. After a series of appeals, Brossart was found guilty of terrorizing a police officer and was sentenced Tuesday to six months in prison, making him the first American to be convicted of a crime with the help of a Predator drone.
What’s more troubling than the fact that CBP is allowing the use of its drones, however, is the fact that it conveniently “lost” records of who used them and when they were used. Most groups fighting against law enforcement and government surveillance use of drones have resigned themselves to the fact that drones are not only going to be used, but that they’re already being used. But most drone regulation bills that have hit Congress and state legislatures have specific regulations that require government agencies to disclose information about drone use and data retention. If CBP can’t be trusted to release the most basic of information years after the fact, and the FBI doesn’t have any idea how many drones it has or who’s allowed to fly them, the public can be excused if it’s skeptical about the future transparency of the whole process.