OAKLAND -- The ongoing tug-of-war over a drone between Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern and privacy advocates ended in a stalemate Thursday, despite Ahern's assurances that the unit would be used for public safety instead of surveillance and information gathering.
"There are vocal groups that are 100 percent against it," Ahern said after a contentious three-hour county Public Protection Committee meeting that didn't bring Alameda County any closer to becoming the first jurisdiction in California to acquiring a drone.
The meeting ended with no resolution, and no meeting has been set to take up the matter again.
But Ahern also revealed new information during the meeting about the potential extent and cost of the drone program, depending on the county's timing and federal authorization. The sheriff is considering buying two drones that run about $50,000 each. They would be paid in part with money from a Homeland Security grant and general fund dollars.
Previously, the department only requested the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to accept $31,646 from the California Emergency Management Agency, which administers the Homeland Security funding.
The department said the money would be used to buy a unit manufactured by AirCover Integrated Solutions, a partnership with Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works, on display during Thursday's meeting.
The meeting was the fourth since November and the second time before the Public Protection Committee. There was no indication that local taxpayer money would be used until Thursday.
The sheriff must first have authority from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy a drone. Otherwise, nothing prohibits the department from acquiring a unit.
Supervisors do not have the budget authority to prevent the sheriff from spending money allocated to the department if the drone is used for legitimate law enforcement activity, Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler said during the meeting.
But Supervisor Richard Valle, who sits on the Public Protection Committee with his fellow supervisor, Scott Haggerty, said just because the technology is available doesn't mean Alameda County should be the first to use it. There will always be a need for technology, and lives will be at risk, Valle said. Those imperatives have to be measured against the Constitution, he said.
Ahern said he understood the concerns and his office would continue working with the American Civil Liberties Union on privacy issues, particularly data.
"Data collected in the name of search-and-rescue could be retained for intelligence-gathering and analysis," according to ACLU lawyer Linda Lye.
Nothing in the directive restricts the sheriff from sending data to the Department of Homeland Security's Regional Intelligence Fusion Center in San Francisco, where information provided by local law enforcement is stockpiled and analyzed to prevent crime and terrorism. Ahern said he had no such intention unless under very specific circumstances.
But data would be kept according to the discretion of the sheriff's department.
Ahern said it could take more than a year to get a drone.
That worried Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Without strong protections in place, it will be easier to upgrade to drones that have more invasive technology such as high-definition cameras, infrared heat sensors, radar and cellphone interception technology, he said.
"Once in the air, it will be much harder to stop."