Alameda Sheriff plays word games at Drone hearing

February 15th, 2013

Yesterday, V-Day, the Public Protection Committee of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing in Oakland, CA on a request from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to purchase a surveillance Drone, which would make my County the first in California to acquire it’s own local Drone. Of course Sheriff Ahern insisted that the Board of Supervisors refer to it as a “small Unmanned Aerial System” and not a “Drone.” He also objected to the term “surveillance” preferring ”observation.” As if there’s a difference. The audience consistently rejecting his attempt to manipulate the language, but the Supervisors tried to adhere to this request, resulting in much verbal fumbling.

The Sheriff almost got the drone proposal passed in the fine print of a different proposal, but the ACLU and Alameda County Against Drones (ACAD) caught his slight of hand and demanded the public hearing. There were no action items in the hearing. It was only an opportunity for public comment and discussion.

There were about 150 people in attendance. I attended the 3 hour hearing as a representative of the Clear Skies Initiative, a universal coalition against drone violence.

The Public Protection Committee consists of two Supervisors, Scott Haggerty, who was openly “excited” about the drone, and Richard Valle who was more skeptical and had privacy concerns.

The hearing opened with a slide presentation by the Sheriff explaining exactly what he was proposing. It mostly consisted of the technical specifications of the drone, and some vaguely worded legal limitations on it’s use. He says he wants to use the drone to get a birds-eye view of crime scenes, and assist search and rescue operations for Alzheimer patients and lost hikers. But he left the door open to use it in criminal investigations. The drone is a little 5 pound quadrocopter equipped with a “observation” camera. Each drone costs about $50,000, give a take a few grand for upgrades. But don’t worry, because see the money is coming from a Homeland Security grant. The limits he explained aren’t really worth recounting, because as we’ll see, they’re easily circumvented and mostly ephemeral.

After the Sheriff’s presentation there were three scheduled speakers. Attorney Linda Lye spoke about the legal implications for the ACLU. Attorney Trevor Timm spoke about the technological applications for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And attorney Mike Siegal spoke on the social ramifications for ACAD.

During the Sheriff’s presentation he was careful to repeat as often as possible that he had “worked with the ACLU” when drafting the proposal, although Linda’s first point was that although the ACLU was consulted, the Sheriff Department’s had ignored most of their recommendations. In the current draft most of the limitations on the drone’s use come from the FAA regulations, so if the FAA regulations change the limitations change. Further, Linda pointed out that it was mandated that the data collected by the drone be shared with the regional Fusion Center, even though the Sheriff’s department claimed innocuous data would be deleted. The Supervisors were apparently unaware of what a Fusion Center even was, and the Sheriff’s description was essentially, “Some Federal thing that’s not my jurisdiction.” The audience sure knew.

Linda also pointed out that the “crime scene” provision in the proposal was incredibly vague, and could easily be used as a justification to spy on anything from jaywalking to political demonstrations. A representative from Search and Rescue tried to claim that the drone would only be used to investigate felony level crimes, but the Sheriff refuted that saying “I don’t want to rule anything out.” One of the more surreal scenes in the hearing was when Supervisor Haggerty and Sheriff Ahern argued over their interpretations of a detail in the ACLU recommendations, and when Linda from the ACLU tried to clarify what was meant she was told to be quiet and wait for them to figure it out.

Trevor Timm from the EFF pointed out that the technical specifications presented by the Sheriff were only a starting point. This drone could easily be equipped with all kinds of surveillance equipment including infrared and thermal imagine, facial recognition, license plate readers, radar, you name it. Trevor got the Sheriff to admit that he was interested in requesting the infrared and thermal upgrade, which would let the drone see through walls. The Sheriff is also requesting a kind of noxious chemical shielding which he said is the drone can fly through a smoke stack, but it seems obvious to me that he wants that so the drone is protected when Oakland police break out the tear gas.

With all the technological limitations of the drone that the Sheriff trots out to imply that it’s a weak piece of equipment, Trevor points out that all those limitations are temporary. For example, the Sheriff assured everyone that the drone only carried enough charge for short 25 minute flights, so there was no risk of continuous surveillance. But Trevor pointed out that technology has recently been developed that could charge the drone by laser from the ground, increasing it’s flight time to 48 hours. Approving the small limited domestic drone just opens the door to whatever upgrades come along

Michael Siegal spoke on behalf of ACAD and called for Alameda County to be declared a drone free zone, and warned of the chilling effect the drone would have on the community.

The most ridiculous thing about the whole hearing was the Sheriff’s attempts to control the vocabulary insisting that somehow an “Unmanned Aerial System” was different from an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.” It’s a distinction without a difference. We have a word for weaponized drones. They’re called “Predator Drones.” Just because the Alameda drone isn’t armed (yet) doesn’t mean it’s not a drone. It’s fundamentally dishonest to quibble about that label.

The hearing ended with when the Board of Supervisors was presented with a petition against the drone. The meeting ended with no resolution and no meeting has been set to take up the matter again.

Here’s my statement to the Board of Supervisors.

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About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.