Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern reluctantly bowed to public pressure and objections from the Board of Supervisors last year when he withdrew his proposal to buy two drones, partially with county money, amid concerns about surveillance, safety and civil liberties.
Ahern made the announcement Wednesday, the day after officially securing the purchase of two AirCover QuadRotor QR425s.
It was a surprise to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), privacy advocates that were active in stopping the purchase in February 2013. They tried working with the sheriff’s office early last year to craft a drone policy that would protect privacy. Their work was not completed.
“He's acquired this drone in secret over public opposition,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye told the Oakland Tribune. “He is basically asking for a blank check, but when it comes to our privacy rights we deserve more meaningful safeguards.”
EFF activist Nadia Kayyali told Ars Technica, “The Sheriff has done nothing to address the concerns expressed by the community at the February 2013 hearing,”
Ahern said the drones will only be used for emergencies, like search-and-rescue missions and bomb squad operations. He told the Tribune he had made it clear that he was going to buy the drones one way or another.
Civil libertarians have raised questions about privacy issues related to surveillance from the sky while commercial pilots and airlines maintain that drones pose a serious potential threat to aviation. There is currently a general lack of federal oversight and no systems in place to integrate the drones into existing air traffic control operations. Federal officials are still debating how to regulate them.
Los Angeles and San Jose police departments have also recently acquired drones, but neither has used them. They all need certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before they can use them.
Drones are just part of a national reconfiguration of local police departments as paramilitary operations equipped with high-tech gear and weaponry supplied by the federal government. One U.S. Department of Defense program has funneled at least $35 billion worth of equipment to local law enforcement agencies, although drones aren’t part of that.
At last count, that program had dispersed 93,763 assault weapons, 180,718 magazines of ammunition, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 432 armored mine-resistant vehicles and 435 other armored vehicles.