U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is regularly flying Predator drones, powerful surveillance aircraft more commonly associated with hunting targets overseas, above American cities for surveillance. This includes cities farther than 100 miles from the border, according to recent flight data.
The news comes after Motherboard previously verified that CBP flew a Predator drone above Minneapolis last week as protesters pushed back against police brutality and the murder of unarmed black man George Floyd by a white police officer. The data is a reminder that CBP does not only work along the U.S. border, and raises questions about the purpose of each CPB drone flight.
CBP owns several unarmed, surveillance-focused Predator drones, according to CBP publications available online. These include CBP-104, the drone CBP flew above Minneapolis on May 29. Motherboard reviewed recent historical flight data of CBP-104, as well as CBP drones CBP-108 and CBP-110, from ADS-B Exchange, a repository of unfiltered flight data.
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Although the majority of the drones' flight paths were, as to be expected, close to or along the border, the data also showed the drones flying above U.S. cities further away from the border. In two instances last month, CPB-104 flew either close to or directly above Minneapolis. CPB-108 recently flew around half a dozen times above or near San Antonio, Texas, which is also outside the 100 mile border region. In some cases the Predator drones circled above the cities for an extended period of time.
It is not clear what the flights were for. CBP investigates a wide range of crimes across the country, often in partnership with other law enforcement agencies. CBP previously told Motherboard that CBP-104 was being flown above Minneapolis on May 29 as part of a joint operation with unspecified federal law enforcement.
"CBP AMO [Air and Marine Operations] routinely conducts operations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to assist law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts," a CBP spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement. "AMO carries out its mission nationwide, not just at the border, consistent with federal laws and policies. During humanitarian missions AMO regularly deploys the unmanned aircraft system to assist FEMA in assessing hurricane affected areas, in coordination with the National Weather Service to capture imagery of storm impacted areas, and with federal, state and local partners to conduct search and rescue missions, in addition to its law enforcement mission."
The EFF previously obtained a number of flight logs for CBP Predator drones, including CPB-104 and CPB-108 in 2012. The purposes of those flights included tracking suspicious border crossings, as well as surveilling and assisting in raiding drug operations in partnership with other agencies. But with CPB-104's deployment over protesters in Minneapolis, their use is clearly not limited to the sorts of incidents usually associated with the agency.
U.S. law enforcement have flown Predator drones along the border for well over a decade, and domestically since at least 2012. In the first case of a domestic arrest using drone surveillance, the Department of Homeland Security used a drone to surveil cattle farmer Rodney Brossart and settle a stand-off between him and another rancher.