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DHS customizes Predator drones for domestic surveillance

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has customized its Predator B drones to identify civilians who are carrying guns and to track their cell phones. The drones are used primarily to patrol the northern and southern borders of the United States, but have been used by a growing number of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, and local police. CNET News says:

Homeland Security’s specifications for its drones, built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, say they “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,” meaning carrying a shotgun or rifle. They also specify “signals interception” technology that can capture communications in the frequency ranges used by mobile phones, and “direction finding” technology that can identify the locations of mobile devices or two-way radios.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained a partially redacted copy of Homeland Security’s requirements for its drone fleet through the Freedom of Information Act and published it this week. CNET unearthed an unredacted copy of the requirements that provides additional information about the aircraft’s surveillance capabilities.

Michael Kostelnik, the Homeland Security official who created the program, told Congress that the drones would be available to “respond to emergency missions across the country.”

“I am very concerned that this technology will be used against law-abiding American firearms owners,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation. “This could violate Fourth Amendment rights as well as Second Amendment rights.”

“The documents clearly evidence that the Department of Homeland Security is developing drones with signals interception technology and the capability to identify people on the ground,” says Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “This allows for invasive surveillance, including potential communications surveillance, that could run afoul of federal privacy laws.”

A Homeland Security official, who did not want to be identified by name, said the drones are able to identify whether movement on the ground comes from a human or an animal, but that they do not perform facial recognition. The official also said that because the unarmed drones have a long anticipated life span, the department tries to plan ahead for future uses to support its border security mission, and that aerial surveillance would comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other applicable federal laws.

The documents show that CBP specified that the “tracking accuracy should be sufficient to allow target designation,” and the agency notes on its Web site that its Predator B series is capable of “targeting and weapons delivery” (the military version carries multiple 100-pound Hellfire missiles). CBP says, however, that its Predator aircraft are unarmed.

CBP’s specifications say that signals interception and direction-finding technology must work from 30MHz to 3GHz in the radio spectrum. That sweeps in the GSM and CDMA frequencies used by mobile phones, which are in the 300MHz to 2.7GHz range, as well as many two-way radios.

The specifications say: “The system shall provide automatic and manual DF of multiple signals simultaneously. Automatic DF should be able to separate out individual communication links.” Automated direction-finding for cell phones has become an off-the-shelf technology: one company sells a unit that its literature says is “capable of taking the bearing of every mobile phone active in a channel.”

Please read Declan McCullagh’s CNET News article and his references for more information about this very disturbing development.

(Note added March 5, 2013: Today, a commercial pilot reported that:

An unmanned drone came within 200 feet of a commercial jet over New York, triggering an FBI appeal to the public for any information about the unusual and potentially dangerous incident.

The crew of Alitalia Flight 608 approaching John F. Kennedy airport on Monday reported the sighting.

“We saw a drone, a drone aircraft,” the pilot can be heard telling air traffic controllers on radio calls captured by the website LiveATC.net.)

-Bill at

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