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Just Say “No!” (or at the very least, “Not Yet!”) to Drones

When word came in October that the Alameda County Sheriff, Gregory Ahern, planned to purchase a surveillance drone—or, in the antiseptic language of bureaucratic juggernauts, an “Unmanned Aerial System”—with little public scrutiny or discussion, the negative reaction was swift from privacy watchdogs such as the ACLU of Northern California, the Electonic Frontier Foundation, and Alameda County Against Drones, an ad hoc group of local residents and activists.

Perhaps surprised by the wide attention his plan attracted, the Sheriff took pains to reassure people that the use of drones would be limited. “We would use it for specific events, not to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county looking for whatever,” said a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff acknowledged that inexpensive aerial surveillance capabilities raised concerns about how widely such capabilities would be used, and stated repeatedly that a clear policy would be crafted in order to prevent the abuse of the new technology, telling reporters that it would be for truly emergency situations only. “If we get one, obviously a policy has to be written up on when we’re going to use it and those types of things,” the spokesman told the Contra Costa Times.

Unfortunately, talk is cheap, and aside from reassuring words like the above, the Sheriff has shown no intention of including the public in any discussion about whether a drone should be purchased, or what policies will be put in place to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are respected (or even considered, for that matter). Privacy advocates were startled and angry late this morning to discover that deep in item 22 on the agenda for tomorrow’s Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting, the following two paragraphs are buried in a list of things to be funded by a large Homeland Security Grant (full pdf here):

7.  Funding in the amount of $31 ,646 will be allocated to the Alameda County Sheriffs Office to purchase an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), weighing less than 4lbs, equipped with live video downlink. The Unmanned Aerial System consists of an unmanned aircraft, the control system, a control link and other related support equipment. Unmanned Aerial Systems save money, enhance safety, save lives and can be utilized across a myriad of public safety disciplines to include the Homeland Security Arena. This system will provide real-time situational analysis for first responders to include search and rescue missions, tactical operations, disaster response, recovery and damage assessment, explosive ordnance response, wild land and structure fire response and response to Hazmat incidents. The UAS can enhance the safety of first responders and citizens alike and will enhance our ability to respond.

The Sheriff’s Office will operate the UAS in full compliance with the mandates of the US Constitution, federal, state, and local laws, and will seek a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.

That is the entirety of the discussion in the document. Aside from the pro forma sentence claiming that the drone’s operation will comply with all laws and FAA requirements (and even the US Constitution—fancy that!), there is hardly a nod toward concerns about privacy or civil liberties, or mention of any plan to enact a policy limiting the drone’s use. The long list of possible uses in the document (“search and rescue missions, tactical operations, disaster response, recovery and damage assessment, explosive ordnance response, wild land and structure fire response and response to Hazmat incidents”) suggest that the Sheriff foresees using the drone in a wide array of circumstances, which is already troubling enough without clear guidelines.

To make matters worse, however, other documents (pdf) obtained by the ACLU belie the department’s claims that the drone would only be used in limited “emergency” situations such as disaster response or Hazmat incidents. In a grant application for drone funding from the California Emergency Management Association, the Sheriff defined the drone’s purpose as “Intelligence and Information Sharing” and certified that it would be used for “Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention-oriented activities.” With everyone from Greenpeace to PETA to Quaker peace activists being ensnared in “terrorism” investigations in post-9/11 America, it’s not hard to imagine that a local sheriff might abuse the term to justify surveillance of any number of nonviolent dissidents, activist groups, or other innocent people deemed “suspicious” by the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s public statements in the media suggest an awareness that citizens may be legitimately concerned about having near-invisible surveillance drones equipped with a “video downlink” flying overhead without our consent, but the effort to push through the purchase of a drone before a full discussion of the topic among civilian leaders and the public, and before establishing a clear set of policies guiding a drone’s use, should be a bright red flag even for citizens who believe that surveillance drones are an inevitability that we will eventually need to get used to.

One sometimes hears the argument that drones will just duplicate the capabilities of helicopters, at less cost and with less risk, so we should embrace them for budgetary and safety reasons. However, any law enforcement tool which makes surveillance dramatically cheaper and easier also dramatically increases the potential for abuse, because there is suddenly much less cost (in dollar, manpower, and officer safety) associated with excessive or improper use of the tool. Welcoming drones because they are “equivalent” to helicopter surveillance is like welcoming law enforcement use of secret GPS trackers on all of our private vehicles because they are “equivalent” to assigning officers in cars to follow us around all day acquiring the same information. Drones (like GPS trackers secretly placed on cars) are so inexpensive compared with the old-tech alternative that they deserve to be recognized as a qualitative shift in law enforcement surveillance capability, with a full public discussion and oversight, rather than merely as an incremental quantitative change in police power.

Since security contracting is big business, it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that there is now a strong drone lobby, and indeed even a proudly bipartisan “Unmanned Systems Caucus” in the House of Representatives whose mission is to “educate “members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems” and “actively support further development and acquisition of more systems.” (Not to be outdone, several Senators recently started a separate drone caucus of their own.) Naturally, those elected officials have been hard at work sucking up millions of dollars in drone-related campaign contributions as they work to expand the use of drones by both law enforcement and private corporations.

The use of drones for domestic law enforcement and “homeland security” purposes is still in its early stages, but is ramping up rapidly, with unknowable ramifications for privacy and the fourth amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches. Drones are, quite literally, flying in uncharted legal and political airspace, and residents of Alameda County have an important opportunity to set a nationwide example by forcing political leaders to impose oversight by considering the full implications for the privacy and safety of Alameda County residents, and setting out clear policies and parameters, before allowing the Sheriff to acquire a drone. Alameda County Against Drones has come up with draft legislation for a moratorium on the purchase and use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Alameda County, and the legislation also includes a compelling list (footnoted, even!) of risks and known abuses associated with drones and other aerial surveillance.

Since I began writing this post, word has since been spread that the Sheriff will NOT seek to get approval for purchase of a drone at tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors meeting after all, quite possibly due to the quick and forceful outcry from activists. A press conference including the ACLU, the EFF, and ACAD will still take place before the meeting, and concerned citizens are encouraged to come and show County officials and the media that a full and comprehensive discussion is required before any further steps are taken toward acquisition and use of surveillance drones in Alameda County. “Just trust us” is not a stance that should satisfy the Board of Supervisors, and it should not satisfy the residents of Alameda County either. Here are the where and when of tomorrow’s press conference, which is across the street from the big courthouse by Lake Merritt:

Tuesday, December 4
10am (Precedes Board of Supervisors meeting at 10:45am)
1221 Oak Street, Oakland