After tabling plans to buy a drone with federal grant funds in 2013 because of public outcry over privacy, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern has bought two drones with $97,000 from the county's own budget.
"We try to keep our agency equipped with the best technology so that we can provide the best service to the community and allow our people to do their job safely," Ahern told the San Francisco Chronicle on December 2. Although the sheriff has maintained that the drone will be used for public safety, privacy advocates have been skeptical that it will only be used for that.
"This is a troubling example of law enforcement trying to acquire invasive and extremely unpopular surveillance technology in secret," said Linda Lye, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California to the Chronicle. "There was a huge hue and cry when he did in secret, and he's done it in secret a second time," says Lye.
The first time Sheriff Ahern tried to acquire a drone began in 2012, when he asked for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant money to fund the purchase but neglected to go to the public with his intentions. According to MuckRock.com, who got a hold of the grant letter proposal, Ahern was looking to use a drone for public safety and surveillance purposes, pointing out he wanted to purchase a device equipped with a "Forward Looking Infrared camera," or a thermal-imaging detection dee.
In February of last year privacy advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and citizens in Alameda County voiced their concerns at a public protection committee meeting. Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told Reason TV at the time that strict rules for how the drone would and would not be used was what she wanted from the department.
"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."
For more on drones watch, "Cops with Drones: Alameda Co., CA, Weighs Technology vs. Privacy."