February 13, 2013 | By Trevor Timm

EFF to Argue Against Surveillance Drone Use at Alameda County, California Public Hearing

A few months ago, in EFF's backyard, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office tried to sneak approval for surveillance drone funding at the county's board of supervisors without a public hearing.  Worse, they told the board of supervisors it only wanted to use the drone for emergency purposes. Yet in internal documents obtained by EFF and MuckRock as part of our 2012 drone census showed the Sheriff’s Office said it wanted to use the drone for activities like spying on “suspicious persons” and “large crowd control disturbances.”

When EFF and ACLU alerted the press to this discrepancy, the county backtracked and the sheriff vowed to write privacy guidelines that would protect citizens from unwanted surveillance. Well, the Sheriff's Office released a draft of those guidelines and they fall far short of adequate. EFF and ACLU will be testifying today in front of a board of supervisors committee, asking them to withhold approving the drone purchase until substantive, binding rules are in place.

Here is the testimony we plan to give to the Board of Supervisors committee.

My name is Trevor Timm, I am a digital rights analyst who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal non-profit based in the Bay Area, that defends and protects civil liberties. I also am here to oppose the Sheriff’s Office’s drone policy and recommend the board does not approve the purchase of a drone until a policy with binding and substantive privacy safeguards is in place.

We fully stand behind everything the ACLU has just said with respect to the holes in the current draft and their recommendations for moving forward, and I would just like to add a few additional points in my allotted time.

First, I would like to underscore the current and future capabilities of this technology. Drones can be equipped with many different types of surveillance equipment. All drones carry some sort of camera with recording capabilities. Some newer high definition cameras—previously used only by the military—are so powerful they can see the color of your shoelaces from a mile away.

Drones can also be equipped with infrared or heat sensors—technology that can literally “see through walls”—as well as facial recognition technology, radar, and license plate readers. Police could also use technology on a drone that can grab a person’s GPS coordinates, texts, and calls.

Through distributed video, a number of drones working in concert like a swarm of insects can scoop up information to provide comprehensive surveillance. It is now so cheap to store data that all this information could be collected and stored indefinitely and shared with any other government agency.

And this can all be done with large drones that can see entire cities, like some military models, or tiny drones, sometimes hard to see with the naked eye that could potentially fly for hours or days at a time.

Now, of course, the Sheriff’s Office will tell you, and they are correct, that the drone they want only flies for 30-60 minutes at a time before it needs to be recharged.

But it’s important to underscore how rapidly this technology is advancing and what is on the horizon. Similar drones in shape and size to what the Sheriff is asking for, but with enhanced capabilities, are currently being manufactured by the drone industry.

For example, Lockheed Martin has been advertising its new drone called the Stalker, which weighs just 13.2 pounds. That’s around the same weight as the drone the Sheriff’s Office wants and is well within the FAA’s weight limits.

The Stalker can actually be recharged from the ground by a laser and stay in the air for more than 48 hours. This is not science fiction, this is real technology that already exists. You can go on Lockheed Martin’s Youtube channel to watch a demonstration of it if you’d like.

The drone the Sheriff is asking for now likely won’t be the Office’s last drone purchase. The technology will likely be obsolete in months, if it isn’t already. This is why it is crucial to have rules of the road in place now. Because once the door is opened, it will become much harder to restrict drone use in the future.

I’d also like to underscore the importance that this issue has with voters and constituents both on the left and right. In all my experience working at EFF, I have never seen an issue that so unites both sides of the aisle.

In at least thirteen states right now—including Washington, Texas, Florida, and Virginia—legislatures are considering bills that would restrict drone use in the name of privacy. And in many of these situations, the bill’s allies are liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who normally keep their distance from each other.

Make no mistake, this will become an election issue. For proof of that, you can look to the recent situation in Seattle, where the police originally did not tell city council it had purchased drones with Homeland Security money. When members of the council found out, they brought in the sheriff to apologize publicly, and he agreed to write binding privacy regulations with the ACLU.

But with the public, the damage had already been done. At townhall meetings held by police, dozens of angry constituents showed up, concerned about undue surveillance. The media started reporting that if city council did not pass a binding ordinance holding the police to any privacy policy they wrote, the council members could lose their seats.

The Seattle mayor last week ordered the police department to dismantle its drone program and return its two drones to the manufacturer.

So this board of supervisors has a choice: on one hand, it can serve as a model for cities and counties across the nation. It can hold the police to account, force them to write a drone privacy policy with no loopholes in it, and pass a binding ordinance making sure the policy cannot unilaterally be changed. If Alameda county does this, it’s sure to make national headlines in a good way.

But by approving this drone purchase without the proper, binding privacy safeguards, the board also risks making headlines—but in a much different way.

The board would become the first local government to explicitly go against the wishes of constituents and allow drones to be flown without substantive privacy rules. This risks alienating citizens of this county, and when next election roles around, if the reaction from citizens in other states is any measure, the candidates who stand up for privacy against drones will likely prevail.

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