The federal government is pushing back against reports that it has drones specifically designed to track firearms and cellphone signals, the latest clash of an increasingly paranoid public and an administration trying to keep its unmanned aerial systems program under wraps.
Citing U.S. Customs and Border Protection documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, numerous media outlets have reported over the past 48 hours that the federal government was in possession of unmanned aerial vehicles capable of detecting guns and of tracking citizens via their cellphone signals.
The documents lay out in detail the capabilities that drones must have to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. One such ability is that they “be capable of recognizing a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,” a phrase that led to fears that the federal government was looking to identify gun owners.
But Customs and Border Protection countered that it merely wants its 10 border-patrolling drones to be outfitted with cameras capable of zooming in close enough to see whether someone has a gun in his hand while crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.
The drone “program is a vital border security asset. Equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and day-and-night cameras, the [drones] provide real-time images to front-line agents to more effectively and efficiently secure the nation’s borders,” said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel.
Mr. Friel also said the agency “is not deploying signal interception capabilities” on its drones.
However, the recently released documents seem to show that the federal government, even if it “is not deploying” in the present tense, is interested in having that capability in the future.
Mr. Friel added that, if the customs agency starts to use signal interception technology on its drones, it will be done “in full consideration of civil rights/civil liberties and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law.”
The deeper issue, privacy advocates say, is that what is being done on the U.S.-Mexico border could soon spread to major cities in the name of national security.
The Department of Homeland Security defines the border as extending out 100 miles from any land or water boundary, meaning that the vast majority of Americans live in a border area. The technology used to detect guns in the hands of illegal immigrants would be technically just as capable of finding firearms held by a U.S. citizen.
“That includes two-thirds of the population that they’re saying has a decreased expectation of privacy. It includes New York City, it includes Chicago, it includes San Diego,” said Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which last summer filed the request for documents on Customs and Border Protection’s drone program.
Furthermore, Ms. Stepanovich said, the capabilities of drones used by Customs and Border Protection will soon expand to other departments and agencies.
“The technology is only going to get cheaper and easier to implement. We expect that in the future we’ll see this more commonly implemented,” she said.