AlCo sheriff wants to buy UAV; groups oppose idea

December 4, 2012 8:54:15 PM PST
Privacy rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union are objecting to the government use of unmanned surveillance aircraft within the United States. It is a debate that has now come to Alameda County because the sheriff's department wants to buy one, but some object.

The opponents of these unmanned aerial vehicles call them drones. The Alameda County Sheriff doesn't use that term, perhaps because of the military connection. However, for this story, we're going to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs.

They cost $31,000 and the Alameda County Sheriff's Department wants to buy a pretty neat little machine, even according to its critics.

"It's just the cutest little toy I can possibly imagine," said Susan Harman.

But Harman of Code Pink told the Alameda supervisors she unalterably opposed to the device. ACLU attorney Linda Lye called it a threat to privacy.

"Just because we walk outdoors sometimes doesn't mean we surrender the right to make sure that the government doesn't collect and stockpile detailed personalized information about our whereabouts," said Lye.

Lye says an inexpensive system for flying a camera is much different than a sheriff's helicopter, precisely because of the low cost. The ACLU fears that affordability will lead to abuse, but are we already there? For a few hundred dollars, you can buy your own camera equipped UAV and as for low cost cameras keeping track of us, they are everywhere -- on buildings, on street lights, in stores. Not to mention the fact that nearly everyone on the street has a camera on their cellphone.

"It's undeniably true that technology has dramatically changed the world we live in, but it doesn't mean we have to surrender our privacy rights merely by going out in public," said Lye.

The ACLU and others are calling on the Alameda County supervisors to put the issue up for discussion and debate and on Tuesday the supervisors agreed. Even the sheriff actually agreed before the issue came up on the agenda. He asked to have the purchase put up for discussion at Public Protection Committee hearing.

"And that is a meeting set for the future hopefully in the near future," said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern.

The sheriff says the UAV would be used for search and rescue and apprehending fugitives, and even though paper work his department filed with the county says it could be used for information gathering, the sheriff says that shouldn't be interpreted too broadly.

"We've never intended to use this unmanned aerial system for any type of surveillance for any type of civilian use whatsoever," said Ahern.

No date yet set for the committee hearing on the sheriff's purchase of the unmanned aerial vehicles, but you can count on a couple of things -- one, it will be a lively discussion and two, we'll be there.


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