Cops with Drones: Alameda Co., CA Weighs Technology vs. Privacy

For a long time, drones - unmanned aircraft - were used only by the military. Now local law enforcement wants them for police work such as surveillance and search-and-rescue missions. That in turn has sparked a fierce debate over the balance between cutting-edge law enforcement technology and the privacy rights of citizens.

In February, Reason TV covered an Alameda County, California public protection committee meeting in which Sheriff Gregory Ahern announced that he planned on using a laptop-sized drone (he prefers to call it an "unmanned aerial system") for search and rescue. “It’s mission specific to search areas for lost children or elderly or Alzheimer’s patients to search an area that it would be very difficult for our personnel to get to,” said Sheriff Ahern.

Residents and civil liberties advocates are skeptical that drone use would remain so narrowly defined for very long. At the meeting, Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California took issue with the sheriff’s submitted draft of a privacy policy. She it's not specific enough about what the sheriff can and cannot do with drones.

“If the sheriff wants a drone for search and rescue then the policy should say he can only use it for search and rescue,” said Lye. “Unfortunately under his policy he can deploy a drone for search and rescue, but then use the data for untold other purposes. That is a huge loophole, it’s an exception that swallows the rule.”

Lye urged the public protection committee not to approve the drone until stricter safeguards were in place. She pointed out that the safeguards were important because the technology will develop very quickly - and possibly to a point where citizens don't have control of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Indeed, Alameda County could serve as the baseline for police and sheriff’s departments across the country, so getting it right there may affect all Americans.

The sheriff plans on applying for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly aircraft above 400 feet and plans to pay for the drone with a federal grant. made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the grant made to the Department of Homeland Security in July 2012. The request revealed that Sheriff Ahern was looking to purchase a drone equipped with a something called a "Forward Looking Infrared camera." These thermal-imaging devices detect radiation given off by heat from people or animals, opening up a wide variety of concerns.

Criminal law experts such as Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School say law enforcement hasn’t been given enough legal guidance on drones yet.

“If you say we’re going to use it for a manhunt, what do you call a manhunt? If you say you want to use it to find missing persons, well, how far can you go with that?” says Levenson. She says that it’s a matter of drawing lines because it’s just too easy to become Big Brother without them. What happens, for instance, if police capture evidence of unrelated criminal activity while searching for a lost toddler? Can they use that to trigger arrests and prosecution?

Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that it is very hard to draw lines with police because, once police have a certain power, they never want to give it up.

“Police always seem to want to push the boundaries as far as the law will take them and sometimes over those boundaries,” says Timm.

He points to law enforcement and cell phone data as an example. The New York Times reported in 2012 that law enforcement made 1.3 million demands in 2011 of phone companies for subscriber locations, text messages, and other information. Because there weren’t strict privacy rules in place when mobile phones first exploded onto the market, it made it that much easier for law enforcement to obtain civilian data without search warrants or users' approval or even knowing about the requests.

"Generally there is this real friction between technology and civil liberties and we haven't really figured out how to deal with it," says Levenson. We don't know how to deal with it because technology is developing a lot faster than the law can keep up. Government cameras are everywhere these days and the laws that deal with them go back to the time of the framers of the Constitution. "What did they know about drones?" asks Levenson.

About 8 minutes.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Alex Manning, Zach Weissmueller, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Detrick.

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For Reason's coverage of drones, go here.

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  • Pro Libertate||

    I've been thinking. Reason has a thing about drones and posts frequently on the topic. Reason also has a thing about food trucks. Why not combine them? Drone food trucks!

  • trshmnstr||

    "I'll take a predator burger with extra hellfire sauce please."

  • Counterfly||

    "Sorry, we've been here an hour and have to re-park our drone before we can drone you."

  • $park¥||

    You mean like the article they did some time ago about the drone taco service?

  • $park¥||

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yes, just like that. But for reals.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I figure that by making food trucks into food drones, the licensing issue will go away, as who needs a drone to be licensed?

  • $park¥||

    Let me be clear, there would be chaos in the skies if just anyone was able to operate an unlicensed drone. For the safety of all Americans, this market MUST be tightly regulated.

  • Pro Libertate||

    What, we're licensing machines now?

  • Counterfly||

    You guys are missing the most important facet of the drone story:

    What does Brett Favre think of law enforcement drones?

  • SumpTump||

    I think that is pretty messed up man, Seriously.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    This seems like a good time for helicopter cat! (Is there ever a bad time for helicopter cat?)

  • Citizen Nothing||

    If you haven't seen helicopter cat chase cows, I think your life has been wasted until now.

  • Sevo||

    "What happens, for instance, if police capture evidence of unrelated criminal activity while searching for a lost toddler?"

    Easy. They arrest the person, shoot the dog and give the shooter a paid vacation.
    I wish all questions were so simple.

  • chalmers65||

    If you think Travis`s story is incredible..., in the last month my dads girlfriend basically also actually earnt $6021 just sitting there a eighteen hour week from there apartment and they're co-worker's aunt`s neighbour was doing this for 4 months and brought in over $6021 in their spare time at their computer. follow the guide on this page,

  • Jon Lester||

    I've been to Alameda, and I like the place, but it really isn't that big. How many times would they really need a drone to see something remotely, in lieu of someone arriving on site?

  • lenaheadey572||

    at Valerie implied I'm taken by surprise that a person able to make $9303 in 4 weeks on the internet. did you look at this web page

  • chenzhong||

    What did they know about drones?

  • rickl7069||

    Maybe, just maybe, this sheriff really is against using drones to violate our privacy and he will only use them for legitimate purposes. BUT, he won't be sheriff forever - what about the next sheriff? There is NO doubt that drones WILL end up being used to invade our privacy.

  • susandaved||

    my roomate's half-sister makes $83/hour on the laptop. She has been out of work for 7 months but last month her pay check was $15258 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more here and go to home tab for more detail ..

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