Civil liberties group sues FAA about drone surveillance flights

A digital civil liberties advocate filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Tuesday that’s seeking to publicize information about the use of unmanned drones in the United States.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the suit Tuesday in Northern California’s U.S. District Court to force the FAA to release data about which groups have been authorized to fly drones higher than the FAA permits.

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Any drones flying higher than 400 feet need authorization from the FAA, but the EFF said it has been given no information about who has been certified to fly them from an April 2011 Freedom of Information Act request.

Drone technology, which began in the military and is now used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection domestically, is being increasingly employed by local and state law enforcement, EFF says.

“As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens,” EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement.

The lawsuit cites a Los Angeles Times story last month about local law enforcement using drones to help catch cattle thieves and drug dealers and find missing persons.

Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who served as chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Intelligence subcommittee, told the Times that using drones for law enforcement without public debate and clear legal authority is a mistake.

"There is no question that this could become something that people will regret," Harman said.

An FAA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.