You may remember that last year in Oakland, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors held a packed public hearing where members of the community, joined by EFF and ACLU of Northern California, testified for over three hours about worries around Sheriff Greg Ahern’s plan to obtain a drone. The consensus at the hearing was clear—at the hearing, only one attendee spoke in favor of the acquisition.

And yet, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed on Tuesday that Sheriff Ahern decided to go ahead and buy a drone anyhow—and this time he's doing it with local taxpayer dollars: “Ahern said he decided to spend $97,000 from the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to buy two small unmanned aerial surveillance devices.”

Sheriff Ahern seems to think he hasn’t done anything wrong, since he told the Contra Costa Times:“There's nothing secret about what we've done...This is how our department acquires equipment on a regular basis.’”

This begs the question: Is Sheriff Ahern saying that on a regular basis, his department has been vehemently informed that the community strongly opposes a purchase and then goes ahead with it anyway? Is he saying that public opinion and transparency don’t matter?

According to the Sheriff, “I made it very clear that I was still going to acquire drones." But Linda Lye of the ACLU of Northern California, who worked closely on the issue, “had been under the impression from exchanges with Ahern that the drone issue had been on the department’s 'back burner.'" In fact, she noted: “This is clearly an effort to bypass the public process.”

How the Sheriff made his intentions clear is a mystery—ACLU, EFF, and community groups like Alameda County Against Drones were all ready and willing to give feedback on drones in general and on any proposed policy, but weren’t aware that Sheriff Ahern had decided to move forward with his plans. Apparently the Sheriff conducted a survey of approximately 500 people "attending an [Alameda County Sheriff's Office]-hosted 'Cop Shop BBQ/community meeting' in September 2014." But that's hardly a representative sample of the residents of Alameda County—and certainly not representative of experts like the ACLU. And even if he did some sort of minimal outreach to the general public (perhaps a message in a bottle?) that doesn’t change the fact that the serious concerns brought up by the community and privacy advocates haven’t just gone away.

They’re not trifling concerns. The Sheriff’s proposed privacy policy was full of loopholes that would allow for misuse of a drone, without any real enforcement for privacy and constitutional violations. The new policy, obtained and published by Ars Technica, is nearly identical. And like the old policy, it doesn’t require a warrant for law enforcement use, something EFF has made clear we believe is the bare minimum for any drone policy. What's more,there has been no real cost-benefit analysis done, despite testimony about the potential litigation and other costs that could be incurred by drones. And concerns about how drones could increase racial and religious profiling or be used to monitor protests were never addressed by the Sheriff at all. In fact, he made it clear that he wouldn’t rule out using drones for demonstrations—particularly chilling in light of the violent suppression of speech that’s been happening since the police killing of Mike Brown.

Here’s the irony: Underlying many of the community's concerns about the Sheriff’s use of drones is the belief that police can’t be trusted, that they will misuse technology, despite assurances to the contrary, especially in absence of solid policies or controls.  By circumventing public process and ignoring the community, Sheriff Ahern has hardly made himself seem more trustworthy. Instead, he’s proved the assumption to be true.

What happens next is unclear. At a press conference today the Sheriff noted that the FAA has not yet authorized the drones, but that he anticipates that they will be "ready to deploy within 'six months to a year.'" EFF will be using that time to monitor the situation and share our assessment of the problems with this purchase. We hope privacy activists do the same.

Related Issues