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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Predator Drones Keep an Eye on the Border, Documents Show

The Customs and Border Protection agency deploys drones capable of “identifying” a human figure, according to documents obtained by an advocacy group that tracks the use of surveillance technology.

The border agency says it does not use facial recognition technology, but cameras that can distinguish between a beast and a human being and glean whether someone is carrying a rifle or a backpack.

Since 2005, the agency has contracted with the San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical System and bought 10 Predator drones for use on land and sea borders. The contracts were unearthed this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. The advocacy group has pressed for laws and regulations to ensure privacy, as civilian drones become more common inside the United States.

The United States military has used drones, including the Predator, overseas to gather intelligence and carry out targeted strikes on the batleground. Drones within domestic airspace are still largely limited to border surveillance, though law-enforcement agencies around the country have lately sought to purchase smaller, lighter vehicles for policing purposes. In so doing they have faced opposition from civil liberties groups and roughly a dozen state and local governments have proposed measures to limit how they can be used.

The Obama Administration last year paved the way for the Federal Aviation Administration to authorize drones for civilian use. In principle, they can be applied for a variety of activities, from dusting crops to monitoring wildlife.

They have also engendered fears of government surveillance, because there is no consensus in law on how the data collected can be used, shared or stored.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the drones used by his agency offe! r field agents “enhanced situational awareness.” According to the contract documents, the sensors attached to the drones would be capable of “identifying a standing human,” and “recognizing a backpack.” The agency spokesman said they cannot identify a particular individual. They can only tell if it is a person or something else.

The documents further specify that the drone systems include signals interception receivers. That, said Ginger McCall, director of the open government project at the electronic privacy center, raised concerns about whether the agency could “intercept communications, including phone conversations.”

The agency spokesman said it does not engage in any communications surveillance.

The Predator systems weigh about 10,500 pounds and can fly for 20 hours nonstop. They are based in North Dakota, Arizona and Texas; another in Florida specializes in keeping an eye on the water and s used in drug interdiction missions. The border agency has stepped up its use of the unmanned vehicle systems: They flew a total of 5700 hours in 2012. “This is not an aircraft that’s looking through windows,” the spokesman said.