Civil rights Activists, Attorneys, fight back

Source: Steve Watson

A county Sheriff’s department in California wants to buy and deploy a surveillance drone, in a move that would make it the first law enforcement agency in the state to officially deploy technology previously used to hunt insurgents in Afghanistan.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern of Alameda County says he wants a 4-foot wing span, 4-pound drone, armed with a live camera, to assist with search and rescue missions, bomb threats, SWAT operations, fires and natural disasters. The department’s policing purview includes Oakland and Berkeley on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The device 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.

“We would use it for specific events, not to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county looking for whatever,” Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the sheriff’s office told the LA Times. “This would be the same kind of drones that are being used by some news agencies today.” he added.

However, the Sheriff has angered residents and civil liberties groups by suggesting that the $50,000 to $100,000 drone would also be used to hunt for marijuana farms, and “track suspects with guns,” referring to such operations as “proactive policing.”

Civil rights attorneys and anti-drone activists gathered outside Oakland City Hall Thursday to vent their frustrations at the plans, suggesting that the drone would be used for mass surveillance of their neighborhoods.

“I don’t want drones flying over my backyard,” Oakland resident Mary Madden said. “The law hasn’t caught up with the technology,” added Trevor Timm of the privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There are no rules of the road for how they operate these things.”

“What does an unmanned aerial vehicle have to do with community policing?” asked Oakland attorney Michael Siegel of Siegel & Yee at the press gathering.

“Drones fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the police and the public,” said Attorney Linda Lye with the ACLU of Northern California.

She added that during recent Occupy Oakland protests, police used tanks and long-range acoustic devices, in an attempt to break them up.

“When law enforcement has dangerous and powerful tools in their arsenal, they’ll use them,” said Lye, who has submitted a Public Records Act request. “The invitation to abuse this tool is enormous.”

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

“Drones should not be used for indiscriminate mass surveillance,” said Lye, adding that the decision should be subject to public debate and a vote by elected officials. “Transparency is key. Right now, we don’t know what, if any, safeguards the Sheriff intends to follow before deploying unmanned surveillance aircraft into our skies.” Lye said.

“It will become integrated into their everyday police tactics,” said protester Rachel Herzing. “A few years ago, we didn’t see tanks or armored vehicles in the streets of Oakland. Now we see it and it’s become almost normal.”

The Alameda Sheriff’s department reportedly first tested a drone about a year ago, and plans further tests during the forthcoming “Urban Shield” exercise in November, a federally coordinated operation that brings together 30 different law enforcement agencies.

The department applied for a federal “community policing” grant that could bring the first drone to the county by 2013.

The critics are not buying Sheriff Ahern’s promise earlier this month to NBC News that the drones would only be used in “emergency” situations, and plan to take the case before City Council members and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, before eventually seeking legal action if necessary, should the Sheriff press ahead with the plans.

After Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization earlier this year, requiring the FAA to permit the operation of drones weighing 25 pounds or less, observers predicted that anything up to 30,000 spy drones could be flying in U.S. skies by 2020.

As we reported earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced in a solicitation that it would be testing small spy drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, signaling that the devices will be used for “public safety” applications in the near future.

Much larger drones are already being used in law enforcement operations across the country. The most infamous case involved the Brossart family in North Dakota, who were targeted for surveillance with a Predator B drone last year after six missing cows wandered onto their land. Police had already used the drone, which is based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on two dozen occasions beforehand.

Police departments are also attempting to get approval to use surveillance blimps that hover over cities and watch for “suspicious activity.”

The U.S. Army recently tested a football field-sized blimp over the city of New Jersey. The blimp can fly for a period of 21 hours and “is equipped with high-tech sensors that can monitor insurgents from above.”

Recently released FAA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the FAA gave the green light for surveillance drones to be used in U.S. skies despite the fact that during the FAA’s own tests the drones crashed numerous times even in areas of airspace where no other aircraft were flying.

The documents illustrate how the drones pose a huge public safety risk, contradicting a recent coordinated PR campaign on behalf of the drone industry which sought to portray drones as safe, reliable and privacy-friendly.