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Air Force can Use “Incidental” Surveillance Data of American Citizens

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists recently discovered an Air Force intelligence brief that states it can use “incidental” surveillance data gathered on American citizens.

The briefing entitled “The Instruction” is dated April 23 of this year. While it states that the Air Force cannot legally conduct “non-consensual surveillance” on Americans, it can retain and analyze accidentally captured surveillance footage from drones for up to 90 days.

This means the Air Force has been given legal permission to study data gathered in military intelligence missions over U.S. soil to determine if the subjects of the data are “legitimate targets of domestic surveillance.” The instruction states, “Collected imagery may incidentally include U.S. persons or private property without consent.”

The Pentagon directive authorizes limited domestic spying in certain scenarios such as natural disasters, environmental cases, and monitoring activity around military bases. Should the drones capture data on Americans, the Air Force says that it can establish whether they are, among other things, “persons or organizations reasonably believed to be engaged or about to engage, in international terrorist or international narcotics activities.”

The document also explicitly says that the Pentagon can circulate the data to other intelligence and government agencies, should it determine it’s needed. “Even though information may not be collectible, it may be retained for the length of time necessary to transfer it to another DOD entity or government agency to whose function it pertains.”

A few months ago, a politically diverse group of more than 30 prominent watchdog groups issued a joint petition to the FAA on the proposed increase in the use of drones in U.S. airspace. These included The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, The American Civil Liberties Union, and The Electronic Privacy Information Center. Together they are calling on the FAA to hold a rulemaking session to consider the privacy and safety threats posed by the increased use of drones.

“The consequences of increased government surveillance through the use of drones are even more troubling.” the petition notes. “The ability to link facial recognition capabilities on drone cameras to the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database or DHS’ IDENT database, two of the largest collections of biometric data in the world, increases the First Amendment risks for would be political dissidents.”

Recent congressional legislation has opened the door to what the FAA predicts will be over 30,000 drones in U.S. airways by 2020. The ACLU noted that the FAA’s legislation “would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.”

In addition to privacy concerns, the petition warns the ability to link facial recognition technology to surveillance drones and patch the information through to active government databases would “increase the First Amendment risks for would-be political dissidents.”

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