(MintPress) – If the Air Force were to illegally collect data on American civilians with its growing fleet of unmanned air drones, it simply has to call the incident accidental to earn a clean slate. The rising concerns of a growing drone surveillance program in the United States has been met with an argument that describes the aircraft as a useful tool for surveying suspicious activity, monitoring natural disasters and providing check-ups on military bases in the U.S.
According to the Air Force’s “Oversight of Intelligence Activities,” information inadvertently collected on individuals that qualifies as “nonconsensual surveillance” can still be kept by the Air Force for 90 days to be monitored for suspicious activity. If it is determined the information cannot be used, or is not “collectible” by the Air Force, it can either be deleted or transferred to another governmental agency.
“Even though information may not be collectible, it may be retained for the length of time necessary to transfer it to another (Department of Defense) DoD entity or government agency to whose function it pertains,” the document says.
As Spencer Ackerman, national security writer for Wired.com, writes, “… if an Air Force drone accidentally spies on an American citizen, the Air Force will have three months to figure out if it was legally allowed to put that person under surveillance in the first place.”
A new ‘normal?’
Requests for drone usage have been on the rise from both city police departments and college campuses. The Wall Street Journal tabulated in mid-April that more than 50 police agencies and campuses had been granted approval from federal aviation regulators to use drones. Large factions such as the Arlington (Texas) Police Department, Kansas State University, Ohio University and the Seattle Police Department all have ‘active’ licenses to make use of the ever-spreading drone technology.
The influx of drone popularity has created a wave of criticism that calls for police oversight and a reexamination of expected privacy in the U.S. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggested drones only be used if the department operating the device can ensure that the evidence collected only pertains to its initial mission. The group also said that if any person’s privacy has a chance of being at risk, the department must obtain a warrant first.
“Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” the ACLU wrote. “We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”
Recently, court developments in the first lawsuit filed in America over drone usage on a North Dakota civilian that resulted in an arrest have wrestled with the very issue the ACLU detailed. In the case, authorities called in an unmanned drone to survey a scene before making an arrest of Rodney Brossart and two other men. Brossart’s lawyer argued that a warrant needed to be sought in order to conduct the search. The lawsuit, which could be a landmark case for drone usage, is examining whether aerial surveillance qualifies as a search.
“Unmanned surveillance aircraft were not in use prior to or at the time Rodney Brossart is alleged to have committed the crimes with which he is charged,” North Dakota state prosecutor Douglas Manbeck wrote.
A push for oversight
Also arising is the call for police oversight and regulations in the wake of high-profile police abuse instances and increased drone usage. As departments battle allegations of police brutality against members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the high-profile case against two California police officers for the beating that resulted in the murder and manslaughter of a homeless man is another incident in the litany of police abuse cases.
Because of those instances and unprecedented drone usage, Merrick Bob, founding director of the Police Assessment Resource Center and member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), has called for a public oversight program that would monitor police activity and involvement within a community.
“Informed public opinion has expressed strong misgivings about whether law enforcement is capable of unsupervised self-regulation—whether the police can police themselves and deal appropriately with unethical conduct, be it corruption or misuse of force,” Bob wrote.
In some of America’s largest metropolitan areas, however, the first step to monitoring police actions is already taking place. In cities such as Atlanta, San Jose, Cincinnati and Austin, Texas, some police officers have been testing head-mounted cameras to record incidents.
But initial testing and criticisms showed that the only people with access to the saved video footage were officials at police departments. Also, rather than recording an officer’s every move, the camera required the officer to turn it on prior to an altercation or action, meaning incidents could go unrecorded. At the height of the testing in 2010, officers were eager to record instances of civilians acting out or documenting threats made against officers.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox to help us capture evidence, and that’s what becomes critically important about this. And that’s what eventually the cops learn to understand and they learn to accept,” said Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher in an interview with CNN.
But Cincinnati defense attorney Steven Adams said the program is ripe for manipulation, particularly in cases where a suspect is beat or unlawful practices are carried out by an officer. He called for a private party to maintain the recorded video rather than the departments.
“They need to put it in the hands of an independent forensic scientific examiner to make sure it’s out of the hands of the police,” Adams said.
The ACLU has warned that without oversight of drone usage in the U.S., the risk of abusing surveillance capabilities is exponentially higher.
“The deployment of drone technology domestically could easily lead to police fishing expeditions and invasive, all-encompassing surveillance that would seriously erode the privacy that we have always had as Americans,” the ACLU wrote.
A representative from NACOLE did not respond to media requests.