Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Domestic Drones Are Here…To Stay

by Micah Zenko
June 21, 2012

A pair of Customs and Border Protection UAS aircraft located at the southern border are standing by for air operations (Gerald L. Nino/Courtesy Customs and Border Protection). A pair of Customs and Border Protection UAS aircraft located at the southern border are standing by for air operations (Gerald L. Nino/Courtesy Customs and Border Protection).


Today, I have a piece in Foreign Policy that assesses the use of surveillance drones by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). While many are understandably anxious about the seemingly inevitable expansion of drones across the United States, I argue that many fears are either overblown or based on misperceptions.

  • The CBP already maintains the “largest law enforcement air force in the world,” with more than 270 manned aircraft of 20 different types—including modern Blackhawk helicopters. (The terrifying photograph below comes from the CBP website.) In addition to its manned aircraft, CBP has deployed nine (unarmed) Predator B drones: two on the border with Canada and seven along the border with Mexico. In total, drones make up roughly 3 percent of CBP aircraft tasked with patrolling U.S. borders and shores. Before getting carried away with domestic drone schemes, concerned citizens should probably focus first on the other 97 percent.

    A CBP Blackhawk helicopter intimidates two vehicles on a remote air strip in the southwest border region of the United States (James Tourtellotte/Courtesy Customs and Border Patrol).

    A CBP Blackhawk helicopter intimidates two vehicles on a remote air strip in the southwest border region of the United States (James Tourtellotte/Courtesy Customs and Border Patrol).

  • Largely as a result of the onslaught of media attention over CIA and military drone strikes abroad, some are concerned that federal authorities could use drones for airstrikes at home as well. Although variants of the Predator can be equipped to missiles, CBP drones will not bomb U.S. citizens. At the same time, it is a common misperception that all drones drop bombs. In reality, less than 4 percent of the Pentagon’s 6,316 drones are capable of conducting strike missions. And in a voice vote regarding DHS funding on June 7, the House of Representatives committee agreed: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles.”
  • The anxieties over drones—whether abroad or at home—do not stem from the platform itself, but the mission. In January 2010, for instance, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk surveillance drone—originally bound for Afghanistan—was diverted in order to provide images to humanitarian relief groups less than forty-eight hours after the Haiti earthquake struck. At the same time, other U.S. drones are used by the executive branch to kill suspected militants and other “military age males” in close proximity, with little transparency and oversight.
  • Congress and the courts are responsible for assuring that drones flown above the United States do not threaten U.S. citizens’ right to privacy and civil liberties. As Louis Brandeis and Sammuel Warren noted in their increasingly relevant 1890 essay, “The Right to Privacy:” “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” Americans should expect and demand the “right to be left alone,” particularly from instantaneous photographs transmitted via drone.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Joshua James

    The picture of the Black Hawk reaches back to legacy US Customs. A far more effective organization with its heritage rooted in the founding of our nation. Today’s CBP is not that.

  • Posted by Teame Zazzu


    Commercially Operated Persistent Surveillance Solution (COPSS). COPSS provides customers a commercial turnkey solution to Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) collection, processing and dissemination. A low-cost daily pricing model provides a rapid access, end-to-end commercial solution for public and private sector customers such as law enforcement, border patrol, federal emergency management officials and private companies. (http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20111027006068/en/PIXIA-PV-Labs-partner-COPSS-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%98Your)

    The general public seems completely unaware that this capability exists or that DARPA military tech is now available for hire by anyone who wants to spy on entire cities or individuals without a warrant and for profit. This technology is the equivalent of having a private investigator follow you around with a video camera and document your every move!! It is a gross violation of privacy and an existential threat to a liberal democracy! PLEASE help raise awareness about this dangerous development. Thank you for all your efforts.

    TZ has been aggressively fighting to stop Wide Area Persistent Surveillance (WAPS) or Wide Are Motion Imagery (WAMI) from being used for domestic surveillance in the USA on platforms such as the Blue Devil and other drones. Recently, many of the Universities and private contractors involved in the development of ARGUS and the Gorgon Stare have gone public to reveal the Gigapixel camera and the fact that it is commercially available (for bird-watching? ;). Readers can now browse a WAMI data set and practice stalking civilians at http://release.pixia.com/wami-js-player/

    Even more dangerous for civil liberties are the PerSEAS (DARPA program) and PerMIATE software (Kitware, inc.) that make all vehicles and pedestrians movements automatically searchable via converting all movement into “tracklets” or chronographs that generate comprehensive geo-tagged location data as well as 24/7 drone coverage. This software can even track pedestrians in them WAMI data (http://www.isvc.net/Asari.pdf)

    Now even CORPORATIONS will have the power to 24/7 stalk citizens as DRAGNET AUTOMATIC COMPUTER TRACKING can be applied to entire cities! PIXIA Inc. has just announced the COPSS program and released its HIPER STARE demo for COMMERCIAL and LAW ENFORCEMENT use. If the idea of local police having this capability is frightening, imagine now that Corporations like the News of the World and Rupert Murdock with able access to this data and abusing it for political influence.

  • Posted by japanese school bag

    Superb, what a weblog it is! This webpage gives valuable facts to us,
    keep it up.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required