OAKLAND, California — Will Alameda County become California’s first local government to deploy a drone?
If the decision were up to dozens of angry residents and several civil rights groups, the answer would be a resounding “No.” They urged the Bay Area county’s leaders, in a public hearing sometimes filled with acrimony Thursday, to squash a plan by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones.
“We oppose the use of public resources to buy machines to surveil its citizens,” Michael Seigel, a member of Alameda County Against Drones, said to rousing applause by many of the 150 people in attendance before the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee.
Moments later, Sheriff Gregory Ahern said: “We object to the term surveil. We have no intention of doing that.”
Outbursts from the audience suggested they did not believe that the drones would be used for more than the stated goals of search-and-rescue, firefighting, bomb-detection and, among other things, crime-scene preservation.
At one point during the hours-long hearing, an Alameda County sheriff’s official said the drones, which the department labeled ”small unmanned aircraft systems,” would only focus on nothing smaller than felony investigations.
Later on, however, Sheriff Ahern said: “I don’t want to lock myself into just felonies.”
Jeers erupted from the crowd. One man said minutes later that “this was an assault on my community.”
County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, a member of the Public Protection Committee, told American Civil Liberties Union attorney Linda Lye that he didn’t believe the drone would be used to spy on people in their backyards, as she alleged.
He added that, whether she believed him or not, “I don’t care.”
Then Haggerty began suggesting that helicopters and drones could equally escape noise detection by potential suspects.
“That is crap,” somebody uttered from the audience.
Alameda County, just east of San Francisco, is closing in on becoming one of dozens of local law enforcement agencies nationwide to deploy the unmanned crafts. Some of the agencies include the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The hearing came a day after federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones (.pdf) in the United States. If adopted, the one-of-a-kind legislation would prohibit drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.
While Alameda County inches toward drone use, the Seattle Police Department last week grounded its two drones amid privacy concerns, and months after the Government Accountability Office warned Congress that its push for drones to become commonplace in U.S.
airspace fails to take into account privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. The GAO, Congress’ research arm, was responding to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed by President Barack Obama in February, which among other things requires the Federal Aviation Administration to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace.