The word drone may conjure up images of remote-controlled planes firing missiles and killing terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But in the US, police departments are seeking the same technology to save lives.
Alameda County’s sheriff has expressed interest in adding the unmanned aerial system to his public safety arsenal, but civil liberty activists are blasting the idea as a further erosion of privacy and an abuse of power.
Back in 1989, Sgt. J.D. Nelson, spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, was on the frontline of the Loma Prieta earthquake search and rescue mission.
“I was the guy who crawled through the Cypress [freeway] searching for people and bodies,” he says.
Forty-two people lost their lives in the freeway collapse.
“It sure would have been nice to have an unmanned aerial system to search that for you, instead of me, or people like me, that when we thought that Cypress was going to collapse,” says Nelson.
At the Urban Shield training in Dublin, a few dozen reporters and law enforcement officials, including Sgt. Nelson, are checking out the latest domestic drone technology.
They’re hovering over the drone control panel, which is surprisingly simple: a small black case with a few buttons and toggles. It looks like something a 12-year-old child could master in a couple of hours. The viewing screen serves as the lid to the case, like a laptop computer.
Salesman James Hill shows a group of cops some key features on the Dragon Fly model.
“The aircraft is in a fixed position,” says Hill. “It’s slewing the aircraft camera around. The entire platform is rotating. I’m looking to see if I can see someone in there.”
The camera is located on the body, between four small legs. Propellers on top of each leg control whether the drone goes back or forth, up or down. It’s small – about four feet by four feet – and weighing four pounds.
During a simulation, we look for someone hiding out in a field of solar panels behind the Santa Rita jail.
“There he is, there he is. OK, so I’ve got him,” Hill says, maneuvering the drone.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is convinced. Sgt. Nelson says it wants to buy one of these unarmed drones for search and rescue, apprehending suspects, and other emergency situations.
“The cost of a helicopter is about $3 million, with a $400 to $600 per-hour charge,” says Nelson. “This is $40,000, with a nominal charge per use. Cost savings is tremendous for sure.”
That might be good from a budget standpoint, but civil rights and privacy advocates are concerned about the potential abuse of this technology.
Trevor Timm is an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He says the sheriff’s department has not been clear on how it intends to use the drones.
“The Alameda County sheriff talks about how he only wants to use these drones in emergencies,” says Timm. “But then, in the next sentence, he talks about proactive policing and potentially using them to get marijuana growers.”
The agency submitted a grant proposal to the Department of Homeland Security to pay for the drone. When Timm read a copy obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, it triggered serious privacy concerns for him.
“Alameda Sheriff’s office, in their application for the grant, talked about [how] they can potentially be used for finding, quote, suspicious persons or, quote, large crowd control disturbances,” says Timm. “So we want to make sure these drones are not being used to just spy on people when they walk outside their home.”
These are issues that could come up for Alameda County residents very soon. The county is considering paying for a drone out of its own public safety budget.
At a recent meeting of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, Matt Cagle from the ACLU requested a vetting process to make sure the drone is used appropriately.
“The ACLU of Northern California encourages the board to hold public meetings to discuss critical questions, like whether drones are necessary, how much they might cost, and what safeguards should be put in place to prevent their abuse and invasions of privacy,” says Cagle.
The ACLU is not alone in its concerns. A local group called Alameda County Against Drones is worried police departments may soon be able to intercept cell phone calls, texts and GPS signals. And Trevor Timm from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says just as the military uses weapons in acts of war, domestic drones can be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons including tasers and rubber bullets.
“And the police could basically use them on whoever they want, whether they’re innocent or suspected of a crime, or guilty, or what have you,” says Timm. So he wants to see regulations.
“Policies that tell them when they delete data, they can’t share it with other agencies, what are they recording, what are they keeping, what are they using them for,” he says. “We need to know all this info before these get in the air.”
Sgt. Nelson says if the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department does get a drone, it will write appropriate policies for use.
“Privacy concerns are always a concern for us,” says Nelson. “We’ve had robots in our bomb squads and SWAT teams for ten years now that are remote controlled. We don’t roll those down the street to [survey] people. This is a tool that’s mission specific. If you have a person in their yard firing of a gun and we deploy this, I don’t think the public has a problem with that.”
The use of domestic drones is on the rise. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued more than 100 drone authorizations throughout the country so far. The Seattle Police Department was one of the first to receive permission. Under pressure from privacy advocates, it came out with a 14-page operations manual, which states that operators will maintain “reasonable expectations of privacy as a key component” in deciding to deploy the drone. It also includes restrictions against random surveillance.
Still, many Seattle residents expressed outrage with the unmanned flyers during a community meeting in October.
A spokesman for the Seattle Police Department says the drone won’t be flown until the manual and policies are completed and they receive FAA approval.
It may take longer to get that approval than first thought. The FAA recently announced it’s postponing all trial flights due to privacy concerns. There’s also federal legislation in the works that’ll make law enforcement officials to get a warrant before they use drones.
Will these measures be enough to ease the concern of Big Brother watching from above? The Bay Area may soon find out.