Why Won’t the FAA Tell EFF Who’s Flying the Drones in US Airspace?

According to this October 2010 report, these are all the locations at which someone–DOD, DHS, and NASA are publicly admitted users; “Other Government Agencies” (spooks) are always included in the discussion though not detailed–got waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration since 2008 to operate drones outside of restricted airspace. And we know they’ve been active since then, doing things like helping to arrest Sovereign Citizens who had stolen 6 cows.

Last April, the Electronic Frontier Foundation FOIAed to find out who was operating these drones.

(1) any active certificates or authorizations issued by the FAA for any type of drone or unmanned aircract (UA), including public UAs and private UAs, and all corresponding agency records;

(2) any expired certificates or authorizations issued by the FAA for any type of drone or UA, including public UAs and private UAs, and all corresponding agency records;

(3) any applications for UA certificates or authorizations that were denied by the FAA, and all corresponding agency records.

But thus far, the agency has refused to fulfill the FOIA request. On Tuesday, EFF sued to get those records.

Kudos to the EFF for suing to get these records. But FAA’s silence thus far really raises questions about what kind of drone surveillance they’ve already got us under.

12 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    @Sean Paul Kelley:

    They are places where overflights are allowed by the FAA. From the Executive Summary of the report in the link above:

    Unmanned aircraft of the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have a need for safe and routine access to U.S. airspace in order to execute a wide range of missions including surveillance and tracking operations, training, test and evaluation, and scientific data collection. UAS are already a significant part of DoD, DHS, and NASA operations and will eventually require U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) access similar to manned aircraft.

    Current UAS lack capabilities similar to what manned aircraft require to operate in the NAS. The lack of comprehensive regulations, procedures, and standards addressing UAS significantly influence how, when, and where UAS operations may occur. Current UAS performance limits UAS NAS operations to Restricted and/or Warning Areas, or requires authorization through application and approval under a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). These airspace access limitations do not support near-, mid-, or long-term objectives for UAS NAS operations at current or projected operational tempos.

    The challenges to UAS Airspace Integration are multi-dimensional. They are influenced by the differences in UAS types and capabilities, missions, numerous classes and types of airspace, governmental requirements, available technologies, and specific mission needs. The challenges are identified in this Plan as regulatory, policy and procedural, standards, and technology.

    Public operators of UAS have a goal to have appropriately equipped UAS gain routine access to the NAS in support of domestic operations, exercises, training, and testing. The FAA’s goal is to ensure all UAS operations are conducted safely, present no threat to the general public, and do no harm to other users of the NAS.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Sean Paul Kelley: If you click though, you’ll also see some maps showing where the drones are based–almost all of which are at a base operating under the border exception. But we know DOD has plans for drones at 4 bases–which would reach every state but CA, and two more locations have been added. Syracuse, NY (which has ties to Fort Drum) is one, not sure of the other.

    But also remember some of these are very small drones–basically model airplanes (they’re also working on an exception for those drones to need to be FAA compliant). So they might just get launched from a field somewhere.

  3. MadDog says:

    I found it interesting that the October 2010 report describes their reporting requirements for “expanded access to the national airspace for unmanned aircraft systems of the Department of Defense.” (My Bold)

    One of the questions that occurs to me is whether “ownership” of these drones flying over the US are still with the DOD. I thought I had read recently that Homeland Security was piloting its own drones (with former military pilots now working as private contractors?), but I could be mistaken.

    And I also note that the EFF is only suing the DOT as the government organization responsible for regulating UAV flights within US borders. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more helpful to add in organizations like DOD, DHS, the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI to shake all the trees for possible fruit rather than just the DOT.

  4. PeasantParty says:

    Lookung forward to the FOIA reports. I wonder if they will include the Hummingbird and Bumblebee drone projects too.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: The FAA controls all the domestic airspace, so whatever the others are doing, they do have to go to the FAA and get their waiver to operate in FAA’s space. DOD, of course, has restricted airspace over the domestic bases where they’re using drones for “training.” Those drones can’t leave that airspace or other limited airspace (like above parks–remember the bear drones over the Adirondacks). Of course, that doesn’t mean the drones can’t spy on us.

  6. PeasantParty says:

    @MadDog: I’ve also read where large cities and rural area police/sheriff departments are allowed to have drones.

    It really needs to be made public and scrutinized. However, you have to remember all those top secret laws that Feinstein and those on the Patriot Act oversight committee will not allow the public to know about. I know that I have railed against laws we are supposed to live by that are so secret we aren’t to know about them.

    If you think it is only limited to cell phone tracking, I have some cheap bridges to sell you. ;-)

  7. joanneleon says:

    It seems like that would be a pretty simple question to answer. It might take some digging but if it is all regulated by the FAA, you’d think they would have that information already collected, no?

    What do we think they might be hiding? The military is allowed to fly them at their test sites, I guess, so nobody would be shocked about that. Who else is flying them here? Is it the pilots that they don’t want to talk about or is the areas where they are flying them that they don’t want to talk about? Or since the CIA seem to be the drone masters these days are we worried that they are flying drones in this country? Since we have the collaboration between the CIA and the military with drones, do they also do their training here in the US? Is that collaboration the thing that they don’t want to shine the light on?

    I’m just wondering aloud there. My real question is for feedback on what we think they might be trying to hide.

  8. joanneleon says:

    Okay, I read some more at EFF and I can see that they are asking a broader question about how drones are being used here and why, and by asking this question about authorizations it will allow them to derive more information to answer their basic questions (the how and why questions).

    Any drone flying over 400 feet needs a certification or authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, part of the DOT. But there is currently no information available to the public about who specifically has obtained these authorizations or for what purposes. EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April of 2011 for records of unmanned aircraft activities, but the DOT so far has failed to provide the information.

    “Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans’ movements and activities,” said EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens.”

  9. joanneleon says:

    More from another EFF article that clarifies the situation:

    EFF will keep monitoring this issue. We hope to learn from our lawsuit against the FAA which entities in the United States—whether they are government agencies, state or local law enforcement, research institutions or private companies—are currently authorized to fly drones and which entities are seeking or have been denied authorization. Once we have that information we will be better able to define the scope of the problem and can further assess and address the privacy issues at stake.

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