A county sheriff’s department in California has acquired two surveillance drones which it intends to deploy next year, despite being forced to scrap the plans last year after intense opposition.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s office, close to San Francisco, could still become the first law enforcement agency in the state to deploy FAA authorized drones after it revived the plans, despite not significantly changing any policy on privacy safeguards.
Privacy advocates and rights groups who fought Ahern on the matter in 2012 and 2013 say that they were unaware the conference was even taking place and only found out about the revived drone plan via an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Infowars previously highlighted how the Sheriff has suggested the drones, acquired via federal “community policing” grants, could be used to hunt for marijuana farms, and “track suspects with guns,” referring to such operations as “proactive policing.”
As Ahern notes in the following NBC report from 2012, the devices can also be fitted with thermal imaging devices that would allow police to see inside buildings, as well as license plate readers and laser radar.
An previous internal memo from the Sheriff’s Office also indicated that the department identified uses for the drone, including monitoring barricaded suspects, investigative and tactical surveillance, intelligence gathering, tracking suspicious persons and overseeing large crowd control disturbances. The new draft policy still allows for such uses of the drones.
In February of 2013, following a county hearing, it appeared that Ahern had been forced to abandon the drone plan due to backlash from local citizens and opposition from attorneys with the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
“The Sheriff has done nothing to address the concerns expressed by the community at the February 2013 hearing,” Nadia Kayyali of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote in a statement Wednesday, citing the fact that the draft policy still does not explicitly limit drone use to search and rescue.
“And the Sheriff still hasn’t addressed the most basic standard for drone policies: law enforcement must be required to get a warrant before using drones.” Kayyali urged.
Linda Lye, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California agreed that the privacy concerns have not been addressed at all.
“First, any ‘safeguards’ are not meaningful because this is simply an internal Sheriff’s department policy, which the Sheriff can unilaterally change,” she stated.
“Privacy safeguards need to be enforceable and this is not. Second, the policy lacks a key privacy safeguard—a requirement that information collected for one purpose only be used for the purpose for which it was collected.” Lye added.
“Section VII would authorize information collected from a drone to be reviewed and evaluated for ‘evidentiary value.’ This would allow data collected during a drone mission that was ostensibly conducted for ‘search and rescue’ to be analyzed for unrelated surveillance purposes.” the attorney explained.
“This portion of the policy therefore invites the very kind of generalized surveillance that the Sheriff has repeatedly said he will not conduct. And he has retained this language despite the ACLU’s repeated criticism of this provision.” Lye concluded.
When confronted on the concerns, the Sheriff essentially admitted that the draft policy has not changed, saying that accommodating privacy concerns would “endanger my people,” referring to bomb disposal teams within the department.
If you have children, do you allow your children to ride a bike without a helmet?” Ahern added. “I want to make sure that my people are as safe as they can be in each and every mission. It’s not easy to send people into harms way and not deploy tools that could help them,” he said.
The sheriff also attempted to placate privacy concerns by suggesting that the department could develop a smartphone app “that if someone were so concerned about our deployment that they could be immediately notified each and every time it’s deployed.”
Given Ahern’s previous comments and stated intentions to use drones for surveillance, it will take more than an as yet undeveloped app to convince residents to accept drones buzzing over their heads on a daily basis.
In 2015, the FAA is expected to announce newly compiled guidelines on the use of drones by law enforcement and government agencies. It is expected that many police and sheriff’s departments will get authorization to deploy the devices, despite surveillance concerns.
Steve Watson is a London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, and Prisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham, and a Bachelor Of Arts Degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University.