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Mercury News editorial: Silicon Valley should help FAA write drone policy

Santa is the original drone. Unnoticed, he can tell when we’re naughty or nice. And somehow, nobody complains.

But it’s time to wake up to the reality of mechanical drones. An estimated 250,000 will be sold worldwide by the end of 2012. You still have time to buy one for your favorite geek for as little as $300.

Alameda County recently blocked a plan to purchase a drone that could be used for surveillance. But until drone use is regulated, ideally at the federal level, the threat of spying by public or private voyeurs is all too real.

Silicon Valley has to embrace a technology that carries great capacity to help people, such as finding lost children and hikers. But tech leaders should be helping the Federal Aviation Administration write a national policy for drone use to protect Americans’ privacy.

After a public outcry this month, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors delayed Sheriff Greg Ahern’s plan to buy a high-powered, $31,646 surveillance drone. Ahern insisted it was for search and rescue missions and responding to wildfires, but a July 20 internal memo from a captain also mentioned intelligence gathering, surveillance of suspicious persons and crowd control.

The fear that drones will be used to spy on residents or carry weapons to attack people prompted the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission to ponder declaring Berkeley a “No Drone Zone.” The city council rejected the idea, but patchwork rules remain a danger.

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