DHS Considers Eavesdropping Tech for Spy Drones on Border

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 1 2013 5:49 PM

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?

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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 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.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 3:53 PM Smash and Grab Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
Oct. 20 2014 5:39 PM Whole Foods Desperately Wants Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 5:03 PM Marcel the Shell Is Back and as Endearing as Ever
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.