Yesterday the Alameda County Sheriff's Office presented a proposal for the purchase of a drone in a public hearing with the Board of Supervisors Public Protection Committee in Oakland, California. EFF joined the ACLU of Northern California and several other public interest groups in testifying against a drone purchase until the Sheriff's Office adopts a substantive, binding privacy policy—with no loopholes—that protects citizens from undue surveillance.

A sample of the drone model the Sheriff hopes to purchase.

The hearing comes after a number of inauspicious false starts for an Alameda County drone program. In October, documents obtained in the EFF/Muckrock 2012 Drone Census revealed a significant discrepancy between the Office's proposal to the County Supervisors and its request to another agency for funding. In particular, while the Sheriff's Office had told the County that it intended to use the drone only for emergency purposes, its funding request named surveillance on "suspicious persons," "large crowd control disturbances," and counter-terrorism applications.

When that discrepancy came to light, the Sheriff agreed to revisit his proposal, this time seeking input from the ACLU and other organizations to write a policy governing drone use. But while the public interest groups provided feedback, the final proposal failed to incorporate some of the most important suggestions. ACLU outlines some of the problems with the new proposal in a letter to County Supervisors Scott Haggerty and Richard Valle [pdf]:

The policy as drafted authorizes the use of UAS for precisely the type of surveillance that the Sheriff agrees in principle should not be permitted. For example, it would authorize the use and retention of data for purposes unrelated to the reason for which the the UAS was deployed. This is a significant loophole that would permit potentially pretextual, privacy-invading uses of the UAS.

In yesterday's hearing, the Sheriff showed a sample unit of the model he is seeking to purchase, and stressed its technical limitations. However, as EFF outlined in our testimony, privacy protections that come through limits on the current state of technology are cold comfort. The state of the art for unmanned aerial surveillance units is rapidly advancing, and current limitations on flight time, camera resolution, data storage, or analysis like facial recognition won't last long. A comprehensive privacy policy is essential now, before technology enables truly invasive practices. In the words of one of the dozens of speakers to give a brief public comment at the end of the hearing: "We, Alameda County, should not be a leader in technology that will infringe upon our civil rights."

That's at the heart of the widespread public uneasiness with the Sheriff's proposed drone program: the possibility for an expansion of the surveillance state into our airspace, not only capturing footage and data for local law enforcement, but also feeding it into Department of Homeland Security Fusion Centers, as outlined in the current Alameda County plan. While the Sheriff clearly hopes to avoid that association—he even asked that the County Supervisors not use the word "surveillance" at all, a request with which they, oddly, attempted to comply—he has so far refused to incorporate the protective language we advocated for into his proposed policy, and even demurred from limiting the surveillance of criminal activity to felonies.

EFF's Trevor Timm speaks to assembled reporters in front of the Alameda County Administration Building.

EFF's Trevor Timm speaks to reporters outside the hearing.

As expected, the public hearing did not result in a specific policy suggestion or course of action. Still, it's encouraging to see so many members of the public coming out to an in-person event to weigh in on the future of local drone policy. As we've outlined before, it's local governments that have the power to restrict drone surveillance. So if citizens want real privacy protections in place, local governments are the place for those demands.

Of course, the controversy in Alameda County is only the latest in a high-profile series of policy battles over law enforcement drones, which are taking place both at the local level and in the halls of Congress. Charlottesville, Virginia, recently became the first city to pass specific anti-drone legislation that bars the local government from using drones. In Seattle, the Mayor ordered local police to dismantle the city's drone program and return the units it had already acquired to the manufacturer.

EFF will continue to follow the developments of Alameda County's drone program, and other programs around the country. There are certainly valuable applications for unmanned systems in law enforcement and distaster response. But as the outpouring of public concern in California and elsewhere has shown, these benefits must not come at the cost of privacy breaches.