A Predator drone is seen Nov. 8 at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas.
A digital rights watchdog group is going to court to demand that the FAA release details on drone spy flights within the United States.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of California against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the umbrella agency for the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans' movements and activities," EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement. "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."
A message left Tuesday night by msnbc.com with the FAA’s media office in Washington for comment was not immediately returned.
Drones are pilotless aircraft whose flight is controlled from the ground. They typically are equipped with spying equipment, such as video cameras, infrared cameras and heat sensors.
The U.S. government has been using drones to carry out sensitive spying and attack operations abroad, such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses drones inside America to patrol the borders, and state and local law enforcement are increasingly using unmanned aircraft for investigations into things like cattle rustling, drug dealing and searches for missing persons, according to EFF.
The group says such uses raise privacy concerns because drones, by virtue of their design, can fly virtually undetected in urban and rural areas.
The group’s lawsuit says any drone flying over 400 feet needs a certification or authorization from the FAA, but says the federal government is withholding information from the public about who specifically has obtained these authorizations or for what purposes.
EFF said that it filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April for records of unmanned aircraft activities but that the DOT so far has failed to provide the information.
"The use of drones in American airspace could dramatically increase the physical tracking of citizens – tracking that can reveal deeply personal details about our private lives," said Lynch. "We're asking the DOT to follow the law and respond to our FOIA request so we can learn more about who is flying the drones and why."
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