Despite their prevalence among law enforcement agencies, drones still aren't subject to any universal set of policies (other than FAA guidelines) that outline when and how they should be used. But a new report (PDF) from the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is recommending that the DOJ look into enacting such a ruleset. "We found that the technological capabilities of UAS and the current, uncoordinated approach of DOJ components to UAS use may merit the DOJ developing consistent, UAS-specific policies to guide the proper use of UAS," the report says. "Unlike manned aircraft, UAS can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence with UAS."
Drones raise 'unique concerns about privacy'
The report follows an OIG audit of domestic drone deployment in the US; the FBI, Burearu of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and US Marshals Service were all asked to provide details of their drone programs and feedback on potential guidelines. The FBI is said to be the only agency actively using drones "to support its mission," with the ATF expressing plans to utilize them for future operations. The DEA and USMS have tested drones, but reportedly have no intention of using them for official purposes. The report also reveals how much has been spent on drone deployment: from 2004 through May of this year, DOJ-affiliated law enforcement components spent “approximately $3.7 million on small UAS,” with the FBI responsible for $3 million alone. Figures for the CIA are predictably absent here, though the secretive agency reportedly had a working budget of $14.7 billion for its operations in 2013.
FBI and ATF officials told the OIG that there's no "practical difference" between drones and manned aircraft when it comes to evidence gathering and surveillance. As a result, the FBI — which says it uses drones in "very limited circumstances" — has largely applied its existing aerial guidelines to UAS. The ATF meanwhile is said to be working on a checklist that tells agents where and when the unmanned units should be employed. But the OIG isn't convinced that's enough; it's recommending the formation of a working group to examine drone issues. But privacy implications aren't its only concern. Ensuring that any and all drone evidence is admissible in court is paramount among the OIG's priorities.