The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has customized its Predator drones, originally built for overseas military operations, to carry out at-home surveillance tasks that have civil libertarians worried: identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones, government documents show.
The documents provide more details about the surveillance capabilities of the department's unmanned Predator B drones, which are primarily used to patrol the United States' northern and southern borders but have been pressed into service on behalf of a growing number of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, and local police.
Homeland Security's specifications for its drones, built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, say they "shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not," meaning carrying a shotgun or rifle. They also specify "signals interception" technology that can capture communications in the frequency ranges used by mobile phones, and "direction finding" technology that can identify the locations of mobile devices or two-way radios.
And guess what? Drones are already flying around domestically for a number of different reasons. So far, they're simply loaded with a camera, not firearms detection devices.
They hover over Hollywood film sets and professional sports events. They track wildfires in Colorado, survey Kansas farm crops and vineyards in California. They inspect miles of industrial pipeline and monitor wildlife, river temperatures and volcanic activity.
They also locate marijuana fields, reconstruct crime scenes and spot illegal immigrants breaching U.S. borders.
Tens of thousands of domestic drones are zipping through U.S. skies, often flouting tight federal restrictions on drone use that require even the police and the military to get special permits.
Armed with streaming video, swivel cameras and infrared sensors, a new breed of high-tech domestic drones is beginning to change the way Americans see the world - and each other.