PRM seeks drone data from Minnesota BCA

December 24, 2013

Public Record Media (PRM) has filed a Data Practices Act request with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) seeking information about how the agency uses drone aircraft owned and operated by the federal government.

An emerging picture
A picture of drone use in Minnesota has been slowly emerging through documents obtained through public records requests filed by PRM, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and other organizations and individuals.

At present, the operation of drones within the United States requires an authorization waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In May of 2013, PRM received a list of all of the “Certificates of Authorization” (COAs) that the FAA had issued for drone operations in the state of Minnesota. The list included ten inactive COAs, as well as two active certificates issued to the University of North Dakota and the Minnesota Army National Guard.

Federal drones, state missions
EFF recently obtained records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that detailed how federal agencies were flying drone missions for a variety of state and local agencies. Included in the cache of documents received by EFF were details regarding missions that the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had flown on behalf of Minnesota agencies, including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Department of Natural Resources. Minnesota Public Radio ran a story based on the EFF documents on October 28th.

On November 8th, PRM submitted a Data Practices request to the BCA that sought additional details about the bureau’s use of drones, including its contracts with CBP, the legal threshold governing its use of drone aircraft, and the surveillance capabilities of the drones that it utilizes.

Seeking records about weaponized drones
PRM has been seeking information about the use of domestic drones since 2011, when it submitted a FOIA request to the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) related to the potential lethal use of “weaponized” drones within the territorial United States. That request ultimately resulted in an agency declaration being filed in federal court which denied that OLC held any such records. The declaration reversed OLC’s earlier response to PRM, which had indicated that such records existed. PRM subsequently won attorney’s fees in a federal lawsuit over the issue.

Questions about weaponized domestic drones continues to persist, due in part to disclosures made under public record laws. For instance, EFF recently obtained a “Concept of Operations” document from CBP which indicated that the agency had considered installing “less-lethal” weapons on its drones.

PRM will soon be pursuing additional information about drone activities occurring within the state.