FBI Chief Admits Use of Drones in U.S. Skies

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FBI Director Robert Mueller told members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency uses drones to conduct surveillance operation over the skies of the U.S. mainland, during a hearing on Wednesday.

When Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Mueller if the FBI uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Mueller responded yes. The UAVs are used only for important surveillance operations, he noted.

But when he was asked if the FBI had adhered to a set of regulations governing UAV use and the protection of Americans’ privacy, Mueller revealed formulating policies regarding drones had only recently begun.

He told the Senate panel that UAVs were used “in a very, very minimal way, and very seldom.”

Legal experts who testified before previous congressional panels, including Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project, Electronic Privacy Information Center, claimed that before using drones domestically new privacy laws are required to protect citizens from domestic use of UAVs.

The majority of police and civilian drones will be much smaller than those used by the military. The U.S. military uses everything from unarmed, hand-launched drones to UAS’s (unmanned aerial systems) that can fire Hellfire missiles and guided bombs, according to Stepanovich.

The testifying expert Stepanovich said:

“Current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions from the 1980s, the Judiciary Committee was told, before the widespread drone use was anticipated. In general, manned helicopters and planes already have the potential to do the same kinds of surveillance and intrusive information gathering as drones, but drones can be flown more cheaply, for longer periods of time and at less risk to human life. That makes it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread.”

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