Alameda County Hosts First Public Battle Over Use Of Domestic Drones

PHOTO/Shane Bond

ALAMEDA COUNTY BOS//DRONES | After months of contention and concern, the residents of Alameda County were finally afforded a public hearing Thursday afternoon to discuss the potential purchase of aerial drones by the county sheriff’s department. Activists, many wearing neon colored stickers stating “No Drones,” joined various organization leaders in Oakland to express their dismay in the lack of privacy concerns over the drones and fear of how they will be used.

Replica of proposed drone sought by
the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department
PHOTO/Shane Bond

Since the idea of Alameda County purchasing drones has appeared in the public forum, the necessity of the drones has been heavily questioned, ranging from its capabilities, cost effectiveness, intended use, transparency to the public, and protection of privacy, among others. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department guaranteed, “strict guidelines will be used to ensure the use of drones for law enforcement purposes will not be used to violate the privacy of county residents.” However, several groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appeared yesterday to say they feel not enough has been done.

One of the latest pieces of information to emerge from Thursday’s hearing was that supervisors may not have the authority to prevent the sheriff from spending money allocated to the department for the purchase of drones, according to Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler. In addition, Ahern must first receive authority from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deploy a drone, and no authority will be sought, as Ahern points out, until or if they acquire the drones. Ahern also revealed to the board he intends on purchasing more than one drone, depending on the chosen vendor.

Thursday’s meeting was for the two-member committee comprised of Alameda County Supervisors Richard Valle and Scott Haggerty to hear concerns and receive information from various parties to make recommendations to the sheriff’s office for the purchase of drones, but the board made no formal resolution.

Going back to late last year, the sheriff’s department asked the supervisors to approve a $31,646 federal grant to help pay for the drones, indicating the department was far closer to acquisition than they had led the public to believe. The money is part of a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agenda item was halted in August after outcry from the ACLU, and the department guaranteed no purchases would be made until it was discussed with the public.

The item at the center of the debate is the Dragonfly drone, an unmanned aerial system. These small aircrafts weigh in at four pounds featuring a four-foot wingspan, limited to 400 feet above ground level, 2,000 feet within line of sight, flown only during daylight hours and can remain airborne for 12-25 minutes, said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern. So far only four counties in the country currently use drones, and if approved, Alameda County would become the first in California.

Alameda County Commander Tom Wright and Captain Tom Madigan began the public hearing by outlining the intended purposes and features of the drones. Madigan seemed determined to express the drones would not be used for surveillance, as has been the primary topic of debate. Rather, he said the drones would be used for preventing crimes such as the Oikos University shooting incident from April of last year, at which the protesters Thursday scoffed and jeered in disbelief. Madigan continued to say their main intention with the drones is to “minimize the loss of life,” and they believe it to be a tool of necessity and effectiveness. “Every kernel of information that you can get can make the difference between life and death,” said Madigan.

Following the presentation by the sheriff’s office representatives, three keynote presentations were made, primarily that of Linda Lye, an attorney for the Northern California division of the ACLU. Lye, who has become one of the main fixtures of the drone debate in the county, has worked to provide the sheriff’s office with recommendations for privacy.

Ahern said the department continues to say they are willing to work with Lye and the ACLU to ensure privacy is upheld. However on Thursday, Lye was adamant in reminding the board that although she commends the sheriff for taking strides in putting a privacy policy in writing, “the privacy policy still lacks essential and enforceable safeguards,” and urged the board to not approve the purchase of drones until said safeguards can be made. The ACLU recommends that before the acquisition of drones, Alameda County leaders should review the policy to look at a cost-benefit analysis that weighs benefits as well as risks to individuals.

According to Lye, the policy as proposed “invites” surveillance, and the sheriff’s department has still not made it clear if reports will be accessible to the public. She affirmed the ACLU acknowledges potential benefits to drones in preventing crimes; nonetheless the lack of information regarding collected data to fusion centers, or areas where any information can be collected and viewed by second or third parties, is of great concern to the ACLU. The ACLU fears the information can be used to infringe on the rights of private citizens, and previous recommendations to work on transparency have been rejected or ignored. “We do not question Sheriff Ahern’s good intentions on this, but we need to draft a written policy so that a future sheriff, or future staff, could not misinterpret the policy.”

The main concern for the ACLU was that of the fourth amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. The concern lies in how law enforcement will use any information against citizens in times of protest and in conjunction with reporting identities of any protesters. The ACLU believes the sheriff should be limited in what information is gathered and how it is used, as so far no clear policy states as such. “It is essential that you the supervisors weigh in on this issue. We are not asking you to micromanage the sheriffs office,” said Lye, “we are asking you to weigh in on a very large, very significant, and fundamental public policy question about how law enforcement interacts, how it collects information on the citizenry.”

Trevor Timm from the Electronic Frontier Foundation underscored the importance this issue has on voters, relating he has never seen an issue that “so unites both sides of the aisle.” Michael Siegel representing the grassroots group Alameda County Against Drones asked for a complete ban against drones, strongly stating they “oppose the use of public resources to buy machines to surveil and suppress our communities.”

Ahern reiterated much of Madigan’s statements of promising to ensure privacy and that the drones would not be used or equipped with militarized weaponry. In response to the ACLU’s concerns regarding fusion centers used by various federal and state law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence, Ahern said they have “no desire” to retain that data and privacy issues are the major concern of their department. “We do not ever want to breach that privacy concern.”

Haggerty, who appeared disconnected throughout the hearing, and fairly abrasive to Lye, said he does not “foresee our sheriff going into peoples homes or backyards to acquire private data” with the drones, calling Ahern “one of the best sheriff’s in the United States,” to which only a single person clapped in approval. Haggerty questioned the ACLU on how they are dealing with private citizens currently purchasing drones for personal use, to which Lye responded, “A private individual doesn’t have the power to put me in jail, or prosecute me, or investigate me.” Haggerty finished by saying he agrees the policy should be revisited to ensure privacy is upheld.

Valle followed with a grandeur expression of his dedication to uphold the constitution and his mission to guarantee the privacy of Alameda County residents is respected. Valle agreed with Haggerty that this issue should be reviewed meticulously in all areas so as to be certain drones are of cost value, necessary and do not violate first or fourth amendment rights of residents.

The roughly hour and half presentations were followed by an hour and a half long comment portion from residents, predominantly those expressing objection to the purchase of drones. “I am really tired of losing my liberty for some false sense of security,” said one member of ACAD, mirroring the roughly 30 members of the community.

Ahern told The Citizen he does not have a specific deadline or timeline for this issue, but his next step is to continue to work with the ACLU to “tighten up our draft,” adding his main concern is to ensure the diverse voices of residents are respected. Ahern also expressed issue with the off-color comments made by many in the crowd to his character, stating he feels it is unfortunate some are choosing to focus their negativity on him to express their issue with the drones.

In response, Lye felt the hearing was a positive step and a “dramatic improvement,” but related there is still more work to be done. As Valle pointed out, “that dialogue is just beginning.”

Natalia Aldana is an East Bay Citizen contributor.