U.S. Customs and Border Protection drones are a wasteful giveaway to defense contractors and a threat to civil liberties, a report released Wednesday by the Center for International Policy found. The report came the same day an advocacy organization called on the Federal Aviation Administration to strengthen drone privacy protections.
The report's findings are of particular interest now, with Congress considering whether to increase funding for border drones as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package. Customs and Border Protection's drone fleet currently includes seven Predators and three Guardians. Under a $443.1 million contract the agency issued in 2012, it may gain 14 more drones in three years.
Tom Barry, lead author of the report, said it found "an inefficient, costly and absurd approach to border security and homeland security through the purchasing of Predator drones that were designed for military activity."
Despite the hundreds of millions spent by the agency for domestic drones, by Customs and Border Protection calculations, the weapons have played a supporting role in only 0.003 percent of drug seizures and 0.001 percent of illegal border crossing detentions.
Given those low numbers, Barry said, Customs and Border Protection has now switched to a new justification for its drone fleet: law enforcement and national security. The agency is promising to work with the Department of Defense or local law enforcement agencies. That, Barry argued, should be cause for concern.
"I think we should be afraid, in terms of this breaking down of the distinction between domestic law enforcement and national security and foreign affairs," Barry said. "That line has been criss-crossed many times with DHS."
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment.
Separately on Wednesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted comments to the Federal Aviation Administration calling for stricter privacy requirements on domestic drones owned privately or by local governments. The agency will select six test sites for domestic drones by the end of the year, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation would like it to be clear about surveillance capabilities the unmanned aircraft possess.
Jennifer Lynch, an Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney, said the FAA should impose privacy protections on both government and private drone operators.
"When it comes to drones, the FAA needs to examine privacy issues with the same rigor it applies to flight and mechanical safety," Lynch said in a statement. "Just as vague safety regulations for drones could result in damage to life or property, vague privacy measures could harm civil liberties."