A House subcommittee chairman on Thursday sharply took the Department of Homeland Security to task for its “incomprehensible” failure to confront the threat posed by a proliferation of unmanned aircraft in the United States.
House Homeland Security Oversight, Investigations, and Management Subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said that despite federal plans to open American skies to more domestic drones, no federal agency has taken the lead in making sure a range of concerns are addressed.
“Unfortunately, DHS seems either disinterested or unprepared to step up to the plate to address the proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Systems in U.S. airspace, the potential threats they pose to our national security, and the concerns of our citizens of how drones flying over our cities will be used, including protecting civil liberties of individuals under the Constitution,” McCaul said at a subcommittee hearing at which DHS representatives declined to testify.
The Federal Aviation Administration has given about 200 authorizations for flying drones domestically. Many of those have gone to law enforcement agencies and academic institutions, but the FAA plans to allow broader use of nongovernment drones nationwide by 2015.
Last week a Massachusetts man pleaded guilty to planning to attack the U.S. Capitol building and the Pentagon with remote-controlled airplanes filled with explosives.
Now, McCaul said, is the time for federal agencies to act to make sure that security and privacy concerns are resolved, rather than waiting until a disaster hurts innocent people as well as the drone industry itself.
DHS is the obvious agency to lead that effort because the FAA is suited more for safety, rather than national security considerations, testified Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has developed a system for hacking into the global positioning systems of civilian unmanned aircraft.
Humphreys and his students recently demonstrated how a high-performance drone helicopter like those used by law enforcement could be “spoofed” into crashing into the ground.
Besides the security issues, DHS and the FAA have yet to address privacy concerns, either for civilian drones or those used by the agencies themselves, said Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office recommended that DHS’s Transportation Security Administration evaluate the implications of the new aerial technology. But GAO’s Gerald Dillingham told the House panel that so far, the TSA has not implemented the recommendations.
“According to TSA officials, TSA believes its current practices are sufficient and no additional actions have been needed since we issued our recommendation,” he said.
A DHS spokesman told National Journal: "The authority to regulate aircraft, including UAS, within U.S. airspace lies with the Federal Aviation Administration." He referred further requests for comment to the FAA.
“DHS’s lack of attention about this issue is incomprehensible,” McCaul said. “I am concerned DHS is reverting back to a pre-9/11 mindset, which the 9/11 Commission described as a lack of imagination in identifying threats and protecting the homeland.”