OAKLAND (AP) — A Northern California sheriff has vowed that his department won't use an aerial drone to spy on ordinary people, but civil liberties groups say there still needs to be some guidelines to ensure privacy.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said Tuesday that a drone his department is pursuing would be used for search and rescue missions, responding to wildfires and to capture fugitives, not for surveillance and intelligence gathering on civilians.
"This device is used for mission-specific incidents," Ahern told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We strive to gain the public's trust in everything we do, and I would never do anything of this nature that would destroy the public's trust beyond repair."
Ahern's comments came after privacy advocates raised concerns Tuesday to the county's Board of Supervisors prior its vote on whether to approve a $31,646 state grant to purchase the drone. Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, accused have accused the Sheriff's Office for months of trying to get the device approved without full public discussion.
ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye said the surveillance and intelligence gathering amount to "spying."
"Public policy should not be made by stealth attack. Drones are subject to enormous abuses," Lye said. "They can be used for warrantless mass surveillance. There needs to be an open and transparent process for debating the important question of whether a drone is even appropriate in our community and, if so, what safeguards should be in place before we buy a drone."
The Oakland Tribune reports that funding for the drone was part of a larger $1.2 million grant dispersed through the California Emergency Management Agency.
The newspaper said that the agenda item was modified Monday afternoon after supervisors and the sheriff became aware of the controversy building over it. Initially, the wording was changed to allow the sheriff to still accept the $31,646 grant, providing no obstacle to using the money for a drone.
County Undersheriff Richard Lucia told supervisors during Tuesday's meeting that Sheriff's officials said adding it to the supervisors' agenda was an oversight by staff. He reiterated that the office will not buy a drone until it has been fully vetted publicly.
The Sheriff's Office has consistently downplayed concern, insisting that the department has yet to receive authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. About a dozen U.S. law enforcement agencies already have or are using a drone, including the Seattle Police Department. The figurre number is likely to grow considerably because the federal government has given explicit support to use drones for law enforcement purposes.
Ahern said his office has made no secret about wanting a drone, citing his invitation to the media and citizens for a public demonstration in October.
But a memo that one of Ahern's captains prepared over the summer, obtained by the Freedom of Information Act website MuckRock, says the drone would be equipped with a long-distance camera, live video downlink and infrared sensors that could be used for monitoring bomb threats, fires, unruly crowds, search and rescue operations, and marijuana grows.
Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which obtained the July internal memo, said he was concerned with what he described as a "mission creep," whereas the drone could be used for purposes other than what Ahern promised.
"These drones have the unprecedented ability to infringe on our privacy and civil liberties," said Timm, who added he is not against drones entirely.
Lucia said if the board votes against buying the drone, the money would go back to the state or be used for something else if the grant rules permit it.
"We stand by our word," Lucia said.
The supervisors eventually decided not to vote on the grant as the matter will be taken up by a public protection committee early next year.