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'Incidental' domestic spying allowed for Air Force drones

updated 10:00 pm EDT, Wed May 9, 2012

USAF can keep drone footage for 90 days

Domestic surveillance is typically the purview of the FBI, and proscribed for the Air Force, the rest of the US military, and the CIA; but a new policy document out from the Secretary of the Air Force opens something of a loophole. According to the policy statement, the Air Force can retain domestic surveillance footage inadvertently captured by spy drones for up to 90 days while it determines whether or not the footage contains information upon which the Air Force is authorized to act.

The policy document spelling out the Air Force's surveillance capabilities is actually intended to prevent military personnel from spying on American citizens, requiring that unwarranted or questionable intelligence activities be reported up the chain of command immediately. Should the Air Force incidentally surveil American citizens, there is now a 90-day window within which the footage can be examined instead of being destroyed, a fact that is sure to alarm privacy advocates.

Drone aircraft have found an array of uses away from the battlefield. The Air Force uses them to assist first responders in the wake of natural disasters; to conduct counterintelligence operations; to facilitate environmental studies in support of wildlife, geological, and forestation surveys; and in support roles for exercises, training, and navigational purposes.

In the course of this sort of use, it is possible for the drones' sensors to pick up the activities of persons unaffiliated with the purpose of the drone's flight. Information collected through this surveillance may only be examined to determine whether or not the Air Force has a right to collect said information; but, should the Air Force determine it has such a right, the information may then be passed on to another Department of Defense entity or to another government agency: e.g., police departments, the FBI, etc.

Efforts to increase governmental surveillance capabilities have repeatedly met with stiff resistance from myriad sectors, including activist groups, non-profit organizations, and Internet conglomerates. Occasionally, this resistance has resulted in the alteration or abandonment of objectionable legislation, as in the case of PIPA and SOPA.

As the technology has gotten both cheaper and more complex, the military is increasingly using drones for many kinds of surveillance. The Army has been working to send drone surveillance footage to troops' cell phones, allowing for real-time birds-eye views of battle theaters. Drones and other technologies have for some time, though, been a point of conflict between privacy activists and government agencies.

Recently, the FBI was said to have met with Internet companies to encourage the development of surveillance backdoors allowing the agency to peek in on the activities of criminal organizations and other persons of interest. Likewise, a page put up by Wikileaks last year shows off a number of products government agencies purportedly use to spy on the public Internet use and to track political dissidents in the US and elsewhere. [via Wired Magazine]

By Electronista Staff
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    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. (

    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

    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 (

    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.

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