After several years of studying how the use of drones is likely to impact the future, the Department of Justice has finally issued its own set of guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by its agencies.

The new rules, which are set in a five-page document issued (pdf) by the department, are not enforceable by law, but they are the first set of rules issued by a government department regarding the use of UAS by law enforcement agencies.

Central to the department's rules is a focus on the protection of civil rights and civil liberties, which the department calls a "core tenet of our democracy." The new rules prohibit law enforcers from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures with the help of drones and requires that authorities see a warrant in cases where a person "has a reasonable expectation of privacy." First Amendment rights, such as the right to a peaceful protest, must also be respected in the use of drones.

"In executing the Department's law enforcement and national security missions, personnel must rigorously support and defend the Constitution and continue to uphold the laws, regulations and policies that govern our activities and operations," the rules say.

The department further recommends that its agencies evaluate the various methods to accomplish an operational objective and use "the least intrusive means," suggesting that the use of UAS is not ideal in all situations.

Privacy is also key to the rules, as the department says all drone-collected data that contains personally identifiable information will be destroyed after 180 days. However, it does say that data that is necessary for "an authorized purpose" will be retained under the Privacy Act.

In accordance to the guidelines issued by the Federal Aviation Authority, the Department of Justice also requires that all pilots operating government UAS must be trained and certified. All agencies are required to keep a log of all drone flights and submit annual reviews to be evaluated by the Attorney General.

The justice department sees drones as a viable law enforcement tool. In fact, a number of cases where UAS have been instrumental in supporting kidnapping investigations, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions and fugitive investigations already abound. Although UAS are, in many ways, similar to manned aircraft, the department is leaning towards the flexibility that unmanned drones can provide, while not imposing too much on the department's shrinking budget.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis | Flickr

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