Americas Police

County sheriff finally gets the drone he wanted, ignores privacy concerns



DUBLIN, Calif. — At the headquarters of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), 34 miles east of San Francisco, Sheriff Gregory Ahern formally announced on Wednesday that his agency had finally acquired two drones just one day earlier.

Once approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is likely to happen sometime in 2015, the ACSO could become the first law enforcement agency in California (the most populous state in the United States) to deploy an authorized drone. The Los Angeles and San Jose police departments also have drones, but have yet to deploy them.

According to its own website, the ACSO regularly provides “patrols and investigative services to the unincorporated areas” of the county, and contracts with some regional areas and cities, including the City of Dublin and the Oakland International Airport, to provide similar services. Alameda County encompasses 1.5 million people and a land area of 738 square miles.

Ahern faced vociferous protest at a county hearing in Oakland in February 2013, after which the plan was seemingly shelved. By contrast, this hastily called press conference—in which nearly only local media attended—had more sheriff’s deputies and staff than reporters, and no community members at all.

Again, Ahern emphasized that the ACSO’s $97,000 worth of drones and related equipment, funded from the agency’s own budget, were not going to be used for surveillance.

“The reason for specifically acquiring this is search and rescue,” he said, adding later that the ACSO responds to “25 to 30” such major incidents per year and “hundreds” of minor search operations.

No lawyers or privacy activists from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were in attendance—both organizations told Ars they only found out about the event from a story in the San Francisco Chronicle posted Tuesday evening. Despite the previous outcry, the ACSO has only made minor changes to its draft policy since 2013—it released a new version on Wednesday, which Ars is publishing here.

In particular, both advocacy organizations have asked the ACSO to explicitly limit drone use to search and rescue in particular.

“The Sheriff has done nothing to address the concerns expressed by the community at the February 2013 hearing,” Nadia Kayyali, an EFF activist, told Ars by e-mail. “And the Sheriff still hasn’t addressed the most basic standard for drone policies: law enforcement must be required to get a warrant before using drones.”

The order would apply even if the ACSO were to loan out one of its drones to a neighboring jurisdiction or under a “mutual aid” agreement.

Just one of the offices of the five members of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors responded to Ars’ request for comment.

“I am just getting the details of what is happening here,” Rodney Brooks, the chief of staff for District 5 Supervisor Keith Carson, told Ars by e-mail. “As a reminder, Supervisor Carson was against the use of the drone when this issue came up before.”

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