This blog post was written by Kenny Gutierrez, EFF Bridge Fellow.

The City Council of Concord, California, is tone deaf to community concerns regarding a proposed police Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS) system – commonly referred to as drones. In a city where the police department is responsible for nearly 60% of the city budget, this should come as no surprise. The UAS program, however, will strangely be funded by Marathon Petroleum, which has no offices or facilities in Concord. EFF, ACLU, and 15 other Contra Costa community organizations opposed this action. We also demanded police oversight and ample safeguards to protect civil liberties and civil rights if the program were to be adopted.

Privacy and police accountability are a massive issue with UAS systems, and are both high priority issues for California voters, as evidenced by the passage of California Consumer Privacy Act and police accountability legislation.

Potential Issues with Drones

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that can be equipped with high definition, live-feed video cameras, thermal infrared video cameras, heat sensors, and radar—all of which allow for sophisticated and persistent surveillance. Drones can record video or still images in daylight or at night (with infrared lenses). They can also be equipped with software tools like license plate readers, face recognition, and GPS trackers that extend the dangers they pose to privacy. There have even been proposals for law enforcement to attach lethal and non-lethal weapons to drones. Additionally, newly developed drone automation allows for automatic tracking of vehicles and individuals.

EFF Letter to Concord City Council

EFF and our allies sent a letter urging the Concord City Council to not adopt a UAS system for Concord Police Department. If, however, the city council decided to approve the UAS system, we made specific recommendations to provide ample safeguards to protect civil liberties and civil rights:

First, drones should be deployed only with a warrant, or in an emergency that threatens death or serious bodily injury to a person.  All deployments should be thoroughly documented, and that documentation must be made publicly available.

Second, facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence, automated tracking, heat sensors, license plate readers, cell-phone interception, and lethal and non-lethal weapons should be prohibited as incorporated technologies to UAS drones.

Third, there must be clear rules regarding access to UAS footage.  Officers suspected of misconduct must not be allowed to view footage until they have made an initial statement regarding the episode.  People depicted in footage must have access to the footage. Also, footage depicting police use of force must be available to the public. Similar to the flaws in body worn cameras, police can exercise too much control over the video before the public sees it without police oversight.

More generally, Concord should adopt a Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) ordinance.  A CCOPS law acts to promote transparency, the public’s welfare, civil rights, and civil liberties in all decisions regarding the funding, acquisition, and deployment of surveillance equipment by local police.  Such a law would appropriately require city departments to provide the public with information about surveillance proposals, including a draft usage policy, weeks rather than days before the proposals are debated before the City Council.

Not only did the Concord City Council approve the police drones, it also failed to adopt these meaningful safeguards. Concord, like many other municipalities, decided instead to use a boilerplate, unprotective Lexipol policy. Will Concord become the next Chula Vista, which deploys a drone for nearly every 911 call? Only time will tell. Concord’s drone policy is permissive enough that it could be.

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