FBI admits to using drones over U.S. soil

Robert Mueller tells Congress surveillance drones have been used, prompting calls for domestic legislation

Published June 19, 2013 8:06PM (EDT)

FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted to Congress Wednesday that drones are already being used over U.S. soil. While the use of surveillance drones domestically -- both by local and federal law enforcement agencies -- has been long anticipated and ushered in by a lobby with a powerful congressional caucus of supporters, Mueller's admissions highlighted the lack of legislation currently in place to govern the use drone technology at home.

Mueller told a hearing that the FBI had used drones to aid its investigations in a "very, very minimal way, very seldom... Our footprint is very small, and we have very few and of limited use, and we're exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use," he said.

Mueller's acknowledgment is only the latest in a series of disclosures about the domestic use of drones. In 2010, it was revealed -- and has since become common knowledge -- that Border Patrol surveils both Canadian and Mexican borders with unmanned aircraft.

The speed with which the domestic drone market has opened up is of little surprise to anyone following the money. As I've noted here before, seventy percent of drone manufacturers are based in the U.S. according to a 2011 study by the global marketing research group Lucintel and total revenue from unmanned aircraft systems is expected to exceed $7 billion over the next decade. Yet, while increasing numbers of police forces and federal agencies are dipping their toes in the water when it comes to using drone technology, policies have not been put in place to delineate appropriate use of UAVs.

As Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, noted last year,“Based on current trends, technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards – it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy."

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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