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DOJ Spent Millions On Drones Despite 'Uncoordinated' Policy

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Justice spent millions of dollars purchasing small unarmed drones for domestic use over the last decade, but the department lacks a comprehensive policy for the unmanned aircraft -- despite growing concern about their use.

In a report released Thursday, the DOJ's inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, said the department's agencies had an "uncoordinated approach" to their use of drones.

Horowitz noted that the use of small drones by law enforcement raises concerns about privacy, in part because the aircraft are able to "maneuver covertly in areas where individual expectations of privacy are not well-defined, such as in the immediate vicinity of residences."

"No agency, including the FBI, should deploy domestic surveillance drones without first having strong privacy guidelines in place," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a statement.

The IG report found that two DOJ agencies -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- have active drone programs, with the FBI spending over $3 million and ATF spending almost $600,000 since 2004.

Another DOJ agency -- the National Institute of Justice in the Office of Justice Programs -- has "been working with the FAA to expand state and local law enforcement use [of unmanned aircraft systems] over a wider-number of areas," the report said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and United States Marshals Service (USMS) also tested drones but have no plans to use them, according to the report.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) have given $1.2 million in grants to seven law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations that used the money to purchase small drones, the IG found.

Responding to the report, an official in the Deputy Attorney General's office said the DOJ's Office of Legal Policy was ordered last month to convene a working group "to identify and address any policy and legal issues pertaining to the use of UAS [drones] for surveillance purposes."

For their part, OJP officials said that local law enforcement grants now include a ban on the use of Justice Assistance Grant money to purchase drones, unless the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance "certifies that extraordinary and exigent circumstances exist, making them essential to the maintenance of public safety and good order."

Stanley said the ACLU was "encouraged" by the inspector general's report and urged the Justice Department to "make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology."

"Congress, however, should pass legislation introduced by Reps. Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren that requires law enforcement to get judicial approval before deploying drones, and explicitly forbids the arming of these machines," he said.

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