California Eyeing Drone Surveillance

Plans by the first California local government to deploy a surveillance drone were postponed Tuesday amid protests by rights groups who complained that Alameda County authorities were rushing the plan without public input.

“There has to be robust public engagement whether to deploy something like this,” said Will Matthews, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alameda County is moving to become one of dozens of local law enforcement agencies nationwide to deploy the unmanned crafts. Some of the agencies include the Seattle Police Department, Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The move comes three months after the Government Accountability Office warned Congress that its push for drones to become commonplace in U.S. airspace fails to take into account privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. The GAO, Congress’ research arm, was responding to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed by President Barack Obama in February, which among other things requires the Federal Aviation Administration to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace.

Alameda County, in the Bay Area, is home to Oakland, the scene of violent Occupy protests last year.

Whether Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern has been completely upfront with his proposal to accept drone funding from the Department of Homeland Security is up for debate. Funding for a drone of 3 or 4 pounds was included in a Board of Supervisors agenda item listing more than $1 million in grants in all for a variety of other policing programs, from bomb detection to general training.

In a letter to the board, the sheriff is requesting that it accept $31,000 in grant money that would partly fund an unmanned aircraft, which the county has received bids ranging from $50,000 to $107,500.

“This system will provide real-time situational analysis for first responders to include search and rescue missions, tactical operations, disaster response, recovery and damage assessment, explosive ordnance response, wild land and structure fire response and response to Hazmat incidents,” (.pdf) he wrote.

But documents before the California Emergency Management Agency, which is distributing the federal drone funding, show that the sheriff’s “objectives” for the drone is “intelligence and information sharing and dissemination, planning.” (.pdf)

The records were obtained by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation via open-records laws, and provided to Wired.

Weeks ago, the sheriff told a local NBC affiliate that it was a “no-brainer” when it came to deploying a drone.

No model of drone has been chosen. But the records show that the agency has received several bids.

Among them, they include:

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors sent the Sheriff’s funding request to its Public Protection Committee, which is tentatively slated to have a public hearing on the matter as early as next month.

Originally published on Wired