Future Tense

DHS Considers Eavesdropping Tech for Spy Drones on Border

A Predator Drone prepares for flight.

Photo by Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

If you live in Texas or Arizona, chances are a Predator drone is soaring somewhere nearby as part of border surveillance efforts. But could the controversial eyes in the sky also soon have an ear on the ground?

Newly released documents, obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have revealed a series of small but significant details contained in Department of Homeland Security drone contracts. Among them is a requirement for a “signals interception receiver,” which is a type of kit designed to suck up cell phone and radio communications as they are being transmitted. A 2010 DHS “performance specification” document mentions how “communication relay and interception” are best performed by drones as an alternative to “sensors mounted in airships, aerostats, towers, and manned aircraft”—though it says the capability remains untested in the field.

EPIC, which obtained the documents after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, says it is now concerned about how electronic surveillance of communications could be conducted by DHS Customs and Border Patrol Agency drones to indiscriminately snoop on calls. “This raises questions about compliance with federal privacy laws and the scope of surveillance,” Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s open government project, said in an email.

Michael Friel, a CBP spokesman, said that the agency currently was “not deploying signals interception capabilities on its [drone] fleet.” However, because the aircraft have a long anticipated lifespan, an eavesdropping capability is being considered by the agency for future deployment. According to Friel, any use of signals surveillance gear on border drones would be implemented in line with “civil rights/civil liberties and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law and long standing law enforcement practices.”

Back in 2008, Predator drones used for combat overseas were kitted out with sensors for “signals intelligence.” But the prospect of drones used domestically for eavesdropping is a far more contentious issue, even if only conducted at the border. The government has argued that the border in fact extends 100 miles inland and is exempt from the search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment, meaning it would be legally easier for border drones to scoop up communications from anyone in the area without a warrant.

CBP currently has 10 Predator drones, equipped with infrared sensors and day-and-night cameras, flown in states including Arizona and Texas as part of efforts to secure the border. If the agency tries to implement eavesdropping drones, though, you can expect a strong backlash from privacy groups. There is already widespread opposition to the unmanned aircraft being used for law enforcement across the United States, and it’s spreading. Last month, Charlottesville, VA., became the first city in the country to reject drones outright. A resolution reportedly passed by the city’s council supports a two-year ban on drone use and prohibits city entities from purchasing them.