Unmanned aircraft debate continues in Alameda Co.

February 14, 2013 10:05:29 PM PST
They have the potential to save lives, stop crime, and bring home missing people. But they're also one of the most controversial tools in law enforcement. Small unmanned aircraft are a topic of very hot debate in Alameda County.

A life sized model of a predator drone sat menacingly among the protesters at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Thursday. They won't be flying over the East Bay any time soon, but small, unmanned helicopters equipped with cameras might.

"We plan on using this for search and rescue," Sheriff Greg Ahern said.

Ahern wants to spend up to $50,000 on the devices he says could help locate missing people and survey the scenes of fires. But those aren't the uses that have civil rights groups concerned.

"Although they will argue that it's being used for, you know, basically good policing, we're afraid that it's going to be used to surveil protesters, dissidents, you know, people that are against police brutality," Anne Weills, of the National Lawyers' Guild, said.

The sheriff says that simply would never happen.

"We don't use these types of devices for surveillance, gathering intel on civilian activity," Ahern said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union wants that in writing.

"The problem with the sheriff's policy is that it's crafted to look narrow but it contains loopholes that render the privacy protections meaningless," Linda Lye said.

The public backlash comes as Alameda County supervisors prepare to decide just how much authority the sheriff should have to fly unmanned aircraft, a case that could be watched the world over.

"We all know that all eyes are on Alameda County and we want to get this right," Sheriff's Office spokesperson Capt. Tom Madigan said.

Alameda County would be the first in California to use the devices. Some are concerned over what happens when they get more sophisticated.

"Technology that can literally see through walls, they can also be equipped with facial recognition technology and license plate readers and radar," Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesperson Trevor Timm said.

Supervisors grilled the sheriff but community groups aren't satisfied.

"We would also be more delighted if they had taken more of our recommendations," Lye said.

If supervisors can broker a compromise, the small aircraft could fly in about a year.


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