Eyes in the Sky

ICE Wants Drones

Agents want ‘toys,’ and the agency is starting to work on the rules to govern the use of those ‘toys.’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are looking to use drones as part of their work, according to two current officials in the agency.

“The agents all want to use them, for sure,” said one official. “The agents love toys. Anything that’s going to enhance them they want to use.”

The official said people in the agency are currently taking steps to move toward crafting policies for agents to use drones. At some point next month, ICE officials are expected to meet to begin discussing the groundwork for the use of drones. The official described it as “preliminary stuff.”

A second ICE official said many agents believe using drones will help them when executing narcotics warrants—dangerous no-knock raids that can result in the deaths of both law-enforcement agents and civilians. Drones could be used to see if a sniper was on the roof of a building before agents entered, or if people with weapons were in the backyard of a house. Drones could also be used for surveillance and general law-enforcement activities.

A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment for this story.

ICE has two components: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which arrests people and detains them before they are deported, and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which investigates transnational crime, including drug trafficking. HSI officials are taking the lead on the conversations regarding drone use.

This revelation concerns civil-liberties advocates. Robyn Greene, policy counsel New America’s Open Technology Institute, told The Daily Beast she worries any internal ICE rules governing drone use may be insufficient to protect people’s privacy—especially given the increasing prevalence of facial recognition technology.

“You’re just creating an eye in the sky that will watch whoever is in the vicinity of its range and potentially identify them,” she said.

“As technology becomes more advanced, and especially as things like facial recognition technology are adapted to drones, you wind up with situations where you can literally be conducting individualized surveillance on dozens if not more people—potentially hundreds of people at any given time,” she added.

And Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at The Project On Government Oversight, also said the revelation is worrisome.

“It’s critical that there’s transparency on what exactly they’re doing and how many people it effects and also it’s critical that there be indep oversight and authorization to make sure that it’s not abused,” he said.

ICE would not be the only agency within the Department of Homeland Security to use drones. The Border Patrol uses drones, and so does the Coast Guard.

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The FBI also uses drones; in 2013 testimony, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller told Sen. Dianne Feinstein that the Bureau uses drones in a “very, very minimal way, very seldom.”

“It is still in nascent stages but it is worthy of debate and legislation down the road,” Mueller said at the time, according to The Guardian.

In the years since then, the FBI’s reliance on drones seems to have grown beyond the nascent stages. A DOJ Inspector General report published in March of 2015 found that the Department of Homeland Security had used drones to support the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration dozens of times. The Atlantic noted in 2016 that the Pentagon has used drones to on American soil, and that the DEA has used drones as well.

ICE agents aren’t just ambitious about drone use. The Daily Beast reported earlier this year that some officials in the agency have been pushing for it to formally join the Intelligence Community. That prospect drew criticism from many IC officials and veterans.