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US drones spy on Americans – ‘incidentally’

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Published: 12 May, 2012, 17:28

A leaked US Air Force document stipulates a drone that happens to capture surveillance images of Americans may store them for a period of 90 days. The paper appears to justify spying on citizens, as long as it is “incidental.”

­The document accepts that the Air Force may not record information non-consensually; however it does state “collected imagery may incidentally include US persons or private property without consent.”

The report, dated April 23 was discovered by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and has been put online.

Data that is accidentally recorded may be stored for a period of 90 days by the Pentagon while it is analyzed to see if the subjects are legitimate targets for state surveillance. The Pentagon may also disseminate this data among other government organizations if it sees fit.

“Even though information may not be collectible, it may be retained for the length of time necessary to transfer it to another DoD entity or government agency to whose function it pertains,” states the document.

In addition, it justifies the gathering of data on domestic targets in certain circumstances. According to the paper, these include surveillance of natural disasters, environmental studies, system testing and training, and counterintelligence and security-related vulnerability assessments.
The document seems to spell bad news for civil liberties, considering the US government passed a bill in February allocating $63 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

If the bill is signed into law it will effectively allow the FAA to fill US skies with drones, a massive 30,000 predicted to be operational in US airspace by 2020.

Over 30 prominent civil rights groups in the US have rounded on the FAA and demanded that it reconsider the legislation and hold a rule-making session to address privacy and safety threats.

“Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft. This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” said the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the legislation.

The bill has sparked fears among Americans that their civil liberties may be under threat, considering that the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been extended to carry out attacks on militants.

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Energy companies eyeing drones to survey pipelines

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Cara Bayles
Staff Writer

Published: Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 1:24 a.m

New regulatory recommendations expected to be released by the Federal Aviation Administration soon could allow oil-and-gas companies to purchase light-weight unmanned drones akin to those used by the military.

Energy companies already use remotely operated vehicles to monitor and manipulate wells at extreme underwater depths, and unmanned aircraft companies hope that in the coming years, companies will be able to hire or buy aerial drones to survey pipelines, check on hard-to-reach parts of platforms and gather information after an offshore accident occurs.

The current federal regulations were first introduced in 2007, as production and development of unmanned aerial systems began to grow. The proposed regulation changes, which will be released in a few weeks, will be subject to a comment period and review, a process that generally takes 12 to 18 months.

“The concerns about these unmanned aerial systems, whether they’re operating in the Gulf of Mexico or over land, remain the same,” said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford. “We want to make sure that they’re used in such a way that the safety of other aircraft is not compromised.”

That could be particularly challenging in the Gulf, where, according to Lunsford, planes and helicopters traveling back and forth to offshore rigs make more than 800 trips per day.

California-based AeroVironment already had agreements with several oil-and-gas companies just before the 2007 regulations were introduced, according to Steve Gitlin a vice president at AeroVironment.

“We’re ready,” he said. “As soon as the FAA says ‘Go,’ we’re ready to provide capabilities to the customers who want it. These aerial systems will save money, save lives and allow for more effective use.”

Lindsay Voss, senior program development manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that the FAA’s longtime complaint is that it needs more data, like a complete picture of the drone accident rate.

“You could say there’s a lot of operational time with Department of Defense,” she said. “We probably have about 6,000 hours a year in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s difficult to take that info and apply it to national airspace.”

Voss said several companies that operate in the Gulf of Mexico, including Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips, have expressed interest in the technology.

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said the company has been an industry leader in developing ways to deploy drone technology for pipeline inspection.

“We have been working cooperatively for over five years with other members of the oil-and-gas industry, the aviation industry and the FAA to enable eventual deployment of drones to assist us in leak and machinery threat detection once (new FAA) regulations are in place.”

Currently, BP and other companies use manned helicopters to survey their pipelines. But helicopters can run about $300 an hour, while renting a lightweight drone can cost as little as $20 an hour, said Voss.

Drone makers say their machinery has a range of applications beyond pipeline surveillance as well.

“The color and infrared video could be very useful if they want to check out the condition of an offshore platform. If there’s a disaster, people tend to be evacuated from a platform, but the operator will still want to have eyes on the target,” said Gitlin. “We’ve done some demos for offshore oil companies in the past and, using infrared, were able to detect oil slick in the water.”

Kevin Lauscher, who does industrial sales for the Canadian company Draganfly Innovations, said that in the past year, he’s already sold some drones that weigh less than 10 pounds for deepwater oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

“They’re used for inspectional purposes. It gives them the ability to more easily view platforms, rather than putting people on cranes or scaffolding as they’ve had to do in the past.”

He attributed the boon in sales to the tightening of federal safety regulations in the past year as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster

“Safety has been brought to the forefront as a result of that,” he said.

Voss said that it could be a few years before drones under 50 pounds are flown over domestic waters.

“They’re still at the very beginning of this process,” she said. “It doesn’t look like the rule will be out until 2014. After that, I think we’ll start to see a pick up, but it’s still going to depend on how things go after the agencies put out the rule.”

Staff Writer Cara Bayles can be reached at 857-2204 or at cara.bayles@houmatoday.com.

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More US drones patrolling above border with Mexico

Congress pins hopes of securing US border on unmanned drones

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The MQ-9 Predator B, an unmanned surveillance aircraft system, is unveiled by US Customs and Border Protection at Libby Army Airfield on Oct. 30, 2006 in Sierra Vista, Ariz. (Gary Williams/AFP/Getty Images)

Teri SchultzDecember 6, 2011 06:21

LUNA COUNTY, New Mexico — Raymond Cobos, the sheriff in these parts, said the horrors of Mexico’s drug war aren’t limited to the big cities of Juarez or Tijuana, and are creeping closer and closer to the United States everyday.

Just across the border sits Puerto Palomas, a Mexican town where Americans used to go — in relative safety — to shop, eat out and seek low-cost medical procedures.

But last years things began to change. And then, Cobos said, shocking events began happening on his doorstep.

“We saw the violence first-hand: the bodies, the tortures, the decapitations. People going to church found three heads displayed there in the plaza,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any single town anywhere of any prominence in Mexico that hasn’t had at one time a series of horrible criminal events in which people have been murdered, tortured, mutilated.”

Now fear is growing that such violence will spill over onto American soil and some officials are hoping that an increased reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will help stem the tide.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the Drone Wars

Although the number of Mexicans illegally crossing into the United States is declining, the potential for drug-related violence — especially as an ongoing war among Mexican drug cartels continues to spiral — has reestablished border security as a hot-button issue, and made the use of drones along the border ever more popular.

The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, commonly known as the Drone Caucus, is a congressional group that works to promote the use of drones both domestically and abroad. It has doubled its membership since January while the number of drones used on the border to track illegal immigrants and drug activity has also steadily increased.

A bipartisan group formed in 2009, the Drone Caucus argues that UAVs are a peerless asset whose use should be amplified not only in weaponized strikes against extremists abroad, but also for the surveillance and tracking of those trying to breach US borders.

Drones now troll the southern border from California to Louisiana, and the northern border from Washington to Minnesota. With a potential flight time of more than 20 hours, the drones make it feasible to cover vast expanses of difficult terrain, while “pilots” split the shifts on the ground.

The first Predator drone was assigned to the southwest border in 2005. Four more soon followed, with the fifth delivered in October to the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, in the district of Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is a co-chair of the Drone Caucus. A sixth will soon arrive in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and two more monitor the northern border out of North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base.

More from GlobalPost: Are the drone wars legal?

Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force pilot who has been working with unmanned technology since the 1990s, said that in his current post as assistant commissioner for the US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine, the drones could prove an invaluable tool.

“If you look at how important the UAVs have been in defense missions overseas,” Kostelnik said from Washington, DC, “it’s not really rocket science to make adjustments for how important those things could be in the homeland for precisely the same reasons.”

Other than the fact that border patrol aircraft do not carry weapons — and despite the presidential campaign rhetoric, Kostelnik said they don’t intend to weaponize them — the units are identical to those used in Pakistan and elsewhere in terms of intelligence collection and real-time interdiction support for agents on the ground.

Tucson Border Patrol Division Chief John Fitzpatrick said it was difficult to put into numbers just how valuable the drones could be for border security.

“Whenever the aircraft shows up, the agents on the ground are more successful and more efficient in what they do,” he said. “It gives us a lot of capabilities we didn’t have before.”

He acknowledged that there was some discomfort with the technology from people living in the area, who worried that the government would be looking into their backyards.

More from GlobalPost: The rationale behind the Drone Wars

“We reassure them there’s accountability in everything we do,” Fitzpatrick said.

For now, supply appears to be outweighing the need and on Capitol Hill, the Drone Caucus appears to be in overdrive. The last three UAVs purchased for border patrol — at a price tag of $32 million from the 2010 budget — were not even requested by Customs and Border Protection, according to an official from the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Congress sent no extra money for missions or maintenance, despite reports that planes already in service remain grounded at times due to a shortage of pilots, spare parts and other logistical restraints.

Customs and Border Protection reported that drones have been responsible for the apprehension of 7,500 illegal immigrants since they began operating six years ago — a tiny fraction of the total number of arrests that have been made over the same period. Using other means, in six years, the agency has apprehended almost 5 million people.

T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing border patrol agents, said the low numbers prove that money is better spent on manned aircraft and boots on the ground.

More from GlobalPost: The people behind the drones

“People play with the facts around this stuff,” Kostelnik said with frustration, acknowledging that high-profile, targeted killings overseas have politicized even unweaponized missions.

When asked what help he needed most back in Luna County, Sheriff Cobos said he would prioritize “boots on the ground,” but wouldn’t object to a little unmanned help.

Unlike Texas and Arizona, New Mexico doesn’t have a facility to receive data from drones, so it has had to rely primarily on a low-tech approach — manually tracking known routes with a night-vision scope, searching abandoned houses and sidling along the border, watching for Mexicans climbing and jumping off the 12-foot high border fence.

The other states are “banging their drums while we’re using a popsicle stick,” Cobos said about New Mexico.

“Sooner or later the cartels are going to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we utilizing this space? Why are we trying to shove it through Arizona and Texas?’” he said. “The possibility [there’s] going to be a catastrophic civil war in Mexico is pretty high, and I have to face the probability that at some point I have to deal with it.”

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