Will A California Sheriff's Department Use A Drone To Spy On Its Citizens?

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Photo: Business Insider, William Wei

Almost overnight, drones have become a part of a nationwide conversation about not just foreign policy but also domestic surveillance, as local law enforcement agencies debate whether they want to risk their citizens’ right to privacy by monitoring them with drones.In Alameda, Calif., the sheriff’s department is begging its local government to pay for one or two drones, which are unmanned aerial vehicles.

If the county’s Board of Supervisors approves its request, its sheriff’s department will be the first law enforcement agency in California to use a publicly funded drone, Ars Technica reports.

Both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have argued the county would need to impose strict rules to prevent local police from invading individuals’ privacy. (Cameras can be attached to drone aircraft.)

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahearn says his office would employ the drone mainly for search-and-rescue missions and “public safety and life preservation missions” where it might be too dangerous to send a live officer, according to a five-page draft document released by the department. 

“We will not use this for surveillance,” Ahearn told the board. “We will not use this for weaponry.”

But when the sheriff’s office first applied for funding, it also listed “intelligence gathering,” “suspicious persons,” and “large crowd control disturbances,” as some of its planned uses for drones, bloggers at MuckRock found in a public records request.

“All drones carry some sort of camera with recording capabilities,” activist Trevor Timm of EFF told the county board in his testimony. “Some newer high definition cameras—previously used only by the military—are so powerful they can see the colour of your shoelaces from a mile away.”

The public’s rising fear of drone surveillance is becoming clear across the United States. On Thursday, a bipartisan pair of Congressmen introduced a bill that would require a warrant to employ drones in a criminal case, according to the Hill. 

At least eleven states are considering legislation to restrict the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” by police departments, including California, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota Florida, Virginia, Maine, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, the AP reported.

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