Drones in Alameda County, California? Community, civil liberties advocates say no.

At a press conference today, community groups and civil rights advocates spoke vehemently against Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s ambitions to purchase and deploy drones in Alameda County. As we’ve previously noted on our blog, while drones are particularly notorious for their use in targeted killings overseas, they can be deployed for surveillance purposes as well. In addition, they can be armed with weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.

Last week, NBC reported that the Sheriff’s office tested a drone two months ago. The model tested by the county has live video capabilities, high definition cameras, infrared, license plate readers (which even on their own raise serious privacy issues) and laser radar. These technologies, combined and attached to a small and powerful drone, would allow the police to surveil in an unprecedented way. In an interview, Sheriff Ahern stated that the office would only use the drones in emergencies but then noted that they would also use them for catching marijuana growers and for “proactive policing,” calling it a “no brainer.” Ahern did not elaborate on what he means by proactive policing, which seems to inherently contradict his assertion of emergency use only.

Representatives from Critical Resistance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Siegel and Yee joined with concerned Oakland residents to make it clear that drones are not welcome in Alameda County. Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated that drones create;

unprecedented privacy consequences for ordinary citizens…there are no rules in place for how they are used.

Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California emphasized that there are no safeguards and no accountability for the use of drones, and that drone technology was increasingly capable of privacy violations. She also pointed out;

 Sheriff Ahern’s announcement that he is seeking a grant to acquire drones comes on the eve of the one year anniversary of the OPD’s brutal crackdown on Occupy Oakland. This is significant because one of the lessons of this brutal crackdown is that when law enforcement has powerful and dangerous tools in its arsenal, it will use them.

Rachel Herzing, of Critical Resistance, emphasized;

We’re concerned about the increased cooperation between military and law enforcement… It’s really difficult, when you imagine seeing in the sky a tool that is used to make war, in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq, flying overhead to not understand that at some level the county is making war on you.

She also emphasized the misplaced priorities that result in this constant push for militarization and more invasive policing strategies. She pointed out that these are quick fixes that ignore the underlying problems;

that we know can only be healed by stable employment, stable housing, meaningful education, access to healthcare and mental healthcare, good food, those kinds of things that the residents of this county have said over and over and over are what really make us safe and secure.

How the coalition will respond remains to be seen, although going to the Board of Supervisors, City Council, and even the courts are all options. Sheriff Ahern will be able to test more models of drones at next week’s Urban Shield exercises. There is an unfortunate legacy of Supreme Court cases that allow for a significant level of aerial surveillance, but it is extremely unclear how this precedent is applicable to drones, as a new technology. As coalitions working with Bill of Rights Defense Committee have shown, one possibility is always local legislation that will limit the use of drones.

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