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Warnings of Domestic Spying as Oakland Police Seek Drones

Local activists worry about abuse, push for updated safeguards

Common Dreams staff

Oakland police hope to have crime-fighting drones within the year. (Photo by development seed via flickr)

The sky may no longer be the limit for local law enforcement in Oakland, Calif. Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern announced a plan to add drones to his local law enforcement fleet by next year.

Oakland city police have been testing various models and have their sites on a craft that can be outfitted with high-definition cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers and laser radar and can fly at the height of 400 feet for several hours.

Linda Lye from the ACLU of Northern California writes:

One of the reasons cited by Sheriff Ahern in support of drones is that they are much cheaper than other forms of aerial surveillance; by his account, a helicopter costs $3 million to purchase and a drone less than 1/30 of that. But the relative inexpensiveness of electronic surveillance is also precisely why strong safeguards need to be in place. […] Drones permit the police to surveil people at all hours of the day and, apparently, at 1/30 the cost of other forms of aerial surveillance. The natural deterrent to abuse goes away, and invites abuse. This makes strong safeguards absolutely essential.

The sheriff alluded to some of his plans for the drone's usage during discussions this week about "proactive policing," saying that the unmanned devices could be used to scout for marijuana farms in the area. Critics view this as an indication that the drones may be employed to spy on large swaths of territory, such as high-crime neighborhoods, or to tail suspects for hours at a time.

According to Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at San Francisco's Center for Democracy and Technology, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that anything viewable from the air is fair game for police. However, this technology is outpacing the law and "this issue is headed straight for the Supreme Court."

The ACLU of Northern California has sent the Alameda County Sheriff a public records request (PDF), asking for basic information about why drones are needed, what safeguards are in place, how much they would cost, and how the drones would be used. Lye adds, "before any drone acquisition proceeds, we need to ask a threshold question—are drones really necessary in our community?—and have a transparent and democratic process for debating that question."

"We want to make sure there are robust rules in place before they fill up the skies of the Bay Area," Trevor Timm, a spokesman with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told the Chronicle. "Right now, it's cheap, it's easy, and there's no rules of the road. It could get out of control very fast."

On Thursday, representatives form the ACLU joined anti-drone activists outside Oakland City Hall in protest of the acquisition. If Ahern succeeds, the Oakland police will be joining the ranks of Miami, Arkansas, Seattle and Texas who—according to FAA documents obtained by the EFF in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit—have all been utilizing remote-controlled craft for police surveillance. State law enforcement agencies in Texas and Arizona have also purchased planes to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border.

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