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Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU, expresses opposition to the use of surveillance drones during a press conference in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

Drones aren't something most residents worry about on a day-to-day basis. But they may be flying over the skies of Alameda County soon if Sheriff Gregory Ahern gets his way.

Ahern is looking at buying a surveillance drone, an unmanned aircraft system, for search and rescue missions, bomb threats, SWAT operations, marijuana grows, fires and natural disasters. But the proposal has already drummed up backlash from privacy advocates worried that drone technology is outpacing safeguards.

So far Alameda County has only tested them. Ahern is eyeing a unit weighing four pounds with a four-foot wing span in the $50,000 to $100,000 price range. He and his deputies will have the chance to test others next week at the Urban Shield regional disaster-preparedness exercises. The department, however, can't buy one until they receive Federal Aviation Administration authorization.

The units can be outfitted with high-powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers and laser radar. Police and sheriffs already use some of those tools. However, combined with a hard-to-detect drone, they offer authorities unprecedented capabilities for mass surveillance using militarized equipment.

"The law hasn't caught up with the technology," said Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group. "There are no rules of the road for how they operate these things."

The units would be unarmed and, according to Ahern, are cheaper than a helicopter, which are not suited to hover low over a crime scene as drones are.


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The department offered no cost analysis or helicopter usage data. But Sgt. J.D. Nelson said the money would come the Department of Homeland Security, one of the lead agencies pushing the expansion of domestic drones. Training is included in the price of the equipment, Nelson said.

He said the department would consider using a drone during mutual aid operations on a "case-by-case basis."

The ambiguity alarmed Oakland resident Mary Madden.

"I don't want drones flying over my backyard," she said Thursday on the steps of Oakland City Hall. Members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Critical Resistance and the ACLU gathered there to challenge Ahern.

Opponents said if Ahern does not reconsider, they will go to the courts, City Council members and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, which have to approve of grants received by the sheriff. Although the issue has not come before the supervisors yet, District 1 Supervisor Scott Haggerty said, especially with budget cuts, drones could be useful for policing rural unincorporated areas like Livermore. But he said in urban areas, particularly, there has to be a process in place to protect people's privacy that involves public input.

In the meantime, the ACLU filed a public records request with the sheriff's office seeking information about the department's proposed acquisition.

The fundamental question is whether a drone is necessary, ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye said.

Occupy Oakland protests showed that when law enforcement has powerful and dangerous tools, they will use them, said Lye, referring to the use of tanks and long-range acoustic devices, capable of intensely loud tones, for crowd control.

"The best practices on paper are meaningless if they are violated in the field," she said.

About a dozen U.S. law enforcement agencies already have or are using a drone, including the Seattle Police Department.

Ben Miller, the unmanned aircraft program manager for the sheriff's office of Mesa County, Colo., dismissed the privacy concerns but said his department tried to be transparent with their residents who worried about the use of their Draganflyer X6 and Falcon UAV. They use them in search and rescue missions, as well as in homicide investigations.

"A bird's-eye view is huge," Miller said, reflecting pitches developed by the industry, which recognized early on they would have to sell the public on the advantages of domestic drones.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International formulated a code of conduct.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police Aviation Committee also has recommended guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft, which include community engagement, rules for use, search and seizure guidelines and how data will be retained.