“We Do Not Need This Flying Invasion of Privacy”

By Neil Satterlund Alameda County Sheriff Ahern wants surveillance drones. At last Thursday’s hearing of Alameda County’s Public Safety Committee, over powerful objections from more than a hundred members of the community, he clarified what he wants: a small, quiet robot helicopter with a camera and thermal imaging that can see you through the bushes. He wants to fly it anywhere in California. The sheriff’s list of drone missions looks focused on disaster response, but includes fire prevention and crime scene monitoring. When veteran ACLU attorney Linda Lye, calling this “vastly overbroad,” asked whether jaywalking would provide an excuse to observe demonstrations, he dismissed the question as “rude.” (He had earlier told a reporter that “we don’t want to rule out a lot of uses.”) First, he was only going to use the drone to monitor felonies. Then he backtracked, saying that the drone might also be used for surveillance at the scene of “some” misdemeanors. But he insists that the drone will never be launched on a pretext and used for another purpose. (Just like stop-and-frisk policies are never used to harass and oppress the public under the pretext of preventing crime). Sorry. I must not use these words. The sheriff ordered the county supervisors and the public not to say “surveillance,” or for that matter “drone,” while discussing his surveillance drone. He refused to promise not to collect off-mission information for the national intelligence fusion centers. These centers track “suspicious activity” (like anti-war protests, or the threat apparently presented by the “diversity” surrounding a Virginia military base). Even if you trust the sheriff not to abuse surveillance, drones aren’t safe. Customs and Border Control’s drones crash seven times more often than the aviation average. The sheriff also does not understand the drone he’s asking for— he claims that the drone’s “signal hopping” makes it impossible to hack. But cell phones have used signal hopping since 1995—apparently, the sheriff hasn’t seen The Wire, or otherwise heard about wiretapping. Last year, a similar drone was hacked using off-the-shelf hardware. The Homeland Security Committee called it a “gaping hole in the security of using unmanned aerial systems domestically.” The sheriff offers no reason why Alameda County should be the first drone agency in California, and one of the first nationwide. We shouldn’t be on the cutting edge of civilian surveillance and police militarization. We do not need this unsafe, expensive, flying invasion of privacy. Neil Satterlund is a member of Alameda County Against Drones
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