FBI Admits It Uses Surveillance Drones In The U.S.

Thanks to one question from one Senator, we learned yesterday that the FBI has used surveillance drones inside the United States.

FBI Badge and Gun

FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted during a Congressional hearing yesterday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has used drones for surveillance purposes inside the United States:

FBI Director Robert Mueller said today the bureau was surveilling the United States with drones.

The revelation was during an FBI oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and comes as the bureau, along with the National Security Agency, are on the defensive about revelations that they are obtaining metadata on Americans’ phone records and Americans’ private data from companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others.

The FBI is not alone in monitoring the U.S. with drones.

Federal agencies use them to survey U.S. borders, help fight wildfires and survey dams after hurricanes. Dozens of local law enforcement agencies nationwide deploy the unmanned crafts, too.

“Our footprint is very small. We have very few,” Mueller said in response to an inquiry on unmanned aircraft by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley asked: “Does the FBI own or currently use drones and for what purposes?”

“Yes, for surveillance.”

Grassley continued: “Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on U.S. soil?”

“Yes, in a very, very minimal way, and seldom.”

Moments later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said drones were a huge privacy threat to Americans. The director was unprepared to answer Feinstein’s questions on what “privacy strictures” are in place to protect Americans’ privacy in connection to FBI drone use.

This isn’t entirely surprising. For one thing, law enforcement has been using aerial observation of crime scenes and such for quite some time. Here in Virginia, one used to see signs advising “Speed enforced by aircraft” on highways quite often, although seem to be less common than they used to be and I’ve never actually heard of anyone who received a speeding ticket arising from aerial observation or measurement. Helicopters are commonly used to aid in the search of suspects or in pursuit cases. With respect to drones, we learned a few months ago that the FBI used a surveillance drone during a hostage standoff in Alabama involving a 5 year-0ld boy, although it’s still unclear how useful the drone actually was in the resolution of that case.  In some sense, then, surveillance drones are simply another tool of law enforcement that can be used to aid the police and FBI in dealing with a particularly difficult situation such as providing a clearer picture of the layout of an area where a wanted criminal may be hiding. For example, had the technology existed at the time one imagines that drones of some kind would have been in use during the standoff outside the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, TX. Indeed, a more accurate understanding of what was happening inside the compound may have helped law enforcement avoid tragedy in that situation.

Nonetheless, there are some rather obvious privacy and Constitutional issues that come into play with the use of this technology. The prospect, for example, of surveillance drones criss-crossing the skies just looking to see what they find, for example, is something that is likely to make most Americans uncomfortable. Generally, the Fourth Amendment places limits on the kind of surveillance that law enforcement can engage in from outside someone’s property without probable cause and a warrant. However, it’s not entirely clear, mostly because the issue hasn’t been litigated very much in the courts, how that applies to aerial observation. If law enforcement launches a drone and sends it over the property of someone they think might be engaged in illegal activity of some kind, but in a situation where they lack probable cause and a warrant, does that violate the Fourth Amendment? What about a situation where law enforcement starts using drone technology the way they now use surveillance cameras and we essentially have cameras flying above us theoretically capable of watching and reporting on anything? As with surveillance cameras, it’s unclear that there would be any Fourth Amendment issues here but there are most definitely serious privacy concerns. Frankly, I doubt most Americans are going to be all that comfortable with the idea of cameras in the sky capable of recording not only their every move in public but what they might be doing in their backyard.

As with the military, it’s silly to reject the very idea of using drones in law enforcement out of hand. Obviously, it would be highly inappropriate for many reasons for law enforcement to be using drones capable of unleashing deadly force except, perhaps, under highly unusual circumstances. However, the benefits of using surveillance drones equipped with both regular and infra-red cameras to, for example, assist in the tracking down of a criminal suspect on the lose such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the neighborhoods of Watertown, Mass. back on the morning of April 19th, shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. What’s needed, though, is an open discussion of how this technology is going to be used and, where necessary, regulation by Congress or the state legislatures regarding that use. Additionally, the Courts are likely going to have to step in and rule on the application of the Fourth Amendment to surveillance drones. For example, there ought to be a distinction between using such technology in a hostage standoff or in pursuit of a suspect and using it without any real probable cause just to see what’s going on in someone’s backyard.  It shouldn’t have taken a random question from a Senator to find out that this technology is already being used.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Intelligence, Policing, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JKB says:

    And they are not talking about government cube drones reading your emails….this time.

  2. ernieyeball says:

    “Our footprint is very small…”

    When the foot making the print belongs to the government and it is wearing the “Boot of Oppression” and it is on your neck there is no “small”.


  3. PD Shaw says:

    He thinks I’m paranoid. I should bring him the drone, then we’ll see how paranoid I am. All day I thought the overhead drones were just pizza deliveries or some local cops busting my balls over parking tickets, but they turned out to be Narks. They had been on me a month.

  4. mantis says:

    The FBI has used aerial surveillance for a long time. What difference does it make if a person is flying the aircraft or not?

  5. Rob in CT says:

    A question, not a defense:

    Is this different than using a manned helicopter? If so, how?

  6. stonetools says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Its DRONEZ!!! So that makes it ten times as menacing and evil.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Is this different than using a manned helicopter? If so, how?

    It’s cheaper. By a lot.

  8. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @mantis: For the record, I wildly speculate as opposed to advocate that some resistance is in the inability to “fight back” against an “enemy” that has “no skin in the game.” Unfair fighting for those who are always fighting, Us vs Them, but like it orderly and balanced. For irregular or non-fighters, it does not appear to make a great deal of sense.

    IMHO, it’s not the drones, it’s the lack of oversight, and drones are in the middle of that huge pile somewhere.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Ozarkhillbilly hits the nail. The cheapness implies we’ll get a lot of it. I think people can find their use justified in this or that circumstance, but its ubiquitous use would eventually turn into at least the appearance and then the reality of ongoing, generalized surveillance. (The comparison then becomes with cameras, not helicopters)

    I think our efforts should be directed towards using drones to replace other law enforcement techniques and not supplement them. Unarmed drones would be ideal in circumstances where we currently risk fatal encounters (such as no-knock warrants).

  10. Caj says:

    Oh my God! Watch out for the tin foil hat brigade to lose their minds! Perhaps some are not aware that we actually have home grown terrorists lurking our streets as well. But of course we can’t ‘spy’ on our own citizens can we, to see if they maybe plotting and planning all sorts? But if a major disaster hits, out there they will be demanding to know why wasn’t this plot or that plot foiled? People can’t have it both ways. Privacy is no good to anyone if they are dead due to lack of security even if they have to use drones.

  11. Rafer Janders says:


    The FBI has used aerial surveillance for a long time. What difference does it make if a person is flying the aircraft or not?

    Scale, basically. It’s like asking what difference does it make if someone is overhearing your conversations on the street or the FBI has a bug in your home.

    If a surveillance agency has to rely on people flying aircrafts, then there’s a pretty hard limit as to the amount of surveillance they can do. If they can use remote controlled drones, however — and remember that in the not so far future, one operator will be able to control hundreds of miniaturized drones no bigger than a bee — then there’s almost no limit to the amount of surveillance that can be imposed. They could park a few drones outside a suspect’s apartment windows forever, something which isn’t really possible with a plane.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Babylon, 2000 BC: “Oh, my Baal, the cops have chariots!”

    Chicago, 1910 AD: “By Jumbo, the cops have cars!”

    It’s funny how change occurs and new stuff happens and things don’t continue forever in stasis.

  13. Rob in CT says:

    Ozark, PD and Rafer have a good point: drones are easier to use, and thus will be used more. I’m still not sure that’s terrible, but I take the point.

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Anything that’s cheaper and easier will eventually become ubiquitous. It was not cheap and not easy to use piloted small planes to perform surveillance, so we didn’t do a lot of it. It will be cheap and easy to use drones to perform surveillance, so expect to see a lot of it.

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Tokyo, 1942: Oh my god, the Americans have bombs!

    Hiroshima, 1945: Oh my god, the Americans have an atom bomb!

    Some technological changes are in fact qualitatively different and result in very changed circumstances for those who live in the new reality.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Rather bad example given that Tokyo ended up being as destroyed as Hiroshima.

    We’ve had police planes and choppers and CATV for quote a whole now and yet we have not become slaves to an all powerful state. In fact we countered by effectively distributing cameras to the entire population in the form of cell phones. So the citizenry can now watch the cops as effectively as the cops watch us.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    So, hmmm, “quote a whole” would be “quite a while” in the dialect known as “iPhone.”

  18. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Rather bad example given that Tokyo ended up being as destroyed as Hiroshima.

    Well, no, that’s my point. It took dozens of raids to destroy Tokyo. The last major firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 took thousands of Army Air Force airmen flying in over 340 B-29 Superfortress bombers and lasted for 3-4 hours; several hundred airmen on the US side were lost.

    In Hiroshima, by contrast, the destruction was accomplished by one plane and one bomb in less than one minute, and no Americans on the mission died.

    Destroying Tokyo was hard to do. Destroying Hiroshima was easy. That ease is what forever changed the calculus of an industrial nation-state being able to protect its cities.

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In fact we countered by effectively distributing cameras to the entire population in the form of cell phones. So the citizenry can now watch the cops as effectively as the cops watch us.

    So this just happened in Brooklyn this weekend:

    A photographer was arrested on Saturday afternoon for taking photos and video outside of an NYPD Housing Authority police station on Central Avenue in Bushwick. Randall Thomas tells the website Photography Is Not A Crime that he was standing on the sidewalk outside the premises for about one hour taking photos to “prepare for an upcoming trial stemming from a January arrest in which police deleted his footage after he had recorded them making an abusive arrest.

    “You’re making a lot of people feel very uncomfortable,” the officer, who identified himself as Officer Soto, explains to Thomas. “How do I know you’re not a terrorist taking pictures so you can figure out where you’re going to put a bomb?” Thomas replies, “If you think I’m a terrorist then you’re an idiot and you shouldn’t be a police officer because you’re incompetent.”
    After a lot more banter of that nature, Thomas was arrested and charged with two counts of disorderly conduct: obscene language and blocking the driveway of the station.


  20. Rafer Janders says:

    From Gizmodo:

    Are Cameras the New Guns?

    In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

    Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

    The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized…..