The Justice Department on Friday released guidelines that would explicitly bar the agency from using drones solely to monitor activity protected by the First Amendment, like peaceful protests.
The department issued five pages of policy guidelines dealing with privacy and civil liberties protections when conducting drone flights. It also outlined transparency requirements.
"Department personnel may never use UAS solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or the lawful exercise of other rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States," according to the policy guidance.
The Justice Department said it would adhere to constitutional principles that requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant when conducting surveillance or other activity in which people have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Law enforcement would also be barred from using drones to engage in discrimination.
The guidance builds off a presidential memorandum released in February that outlined general privacy and civil rights principles related to drones, and required all federal agencies to adopt their own procedures on how to collect and use information collected from domestic drones.
The data that is collected by Justice Department drone flights would be subject to the Privacy Act, which prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of information. In particular, law enforcement would not be able to hold on to personally identifiable information collected from a drone for more than 180 days unless it serves an authorized purpose or is stored in a database covered by the Privacy Act.
The agency would be forced to keep logs of the purpose and number of flights, including those in which other agencies like the Homeland Security Department conducted the flight. In addition, the department website will also list a "general summary" of drone flights conducted in the previous year, which include the number of times it assisted with other agencies.
Privacy critics in the past have been wary of the use of drones for law enforcement purposes in the United States. But the Justice Department said they can save time and money and are "likely to come into greater use" in the future.
The Justice Department used drones in 13 investigations in 2014, according to an inspector general report released earlier this year. Those included operations related to rescue, kidnappings, manhunts, national security missions and drug-related investigations. The report also found the Homeland Security Department sometimes conducts drone flights for the Justice Department.
Inside the Justice Department, the FBI is the only law enforcement division flying the drones, according to the report. At the time of the report, only two pilots operated all FBI missions. The policy guidelines Friday outlined requirements for flight approval and proper pilot training.
In a footnote, the Justice Department noted that the guidelines are not legally enforceable and are "intended only to improve the internal management" at the agency.