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]