The Alameda County Board of Supervisors was set to consider a request from Sheriff Gregory Ahern to approve the purchase of a drone for his department on Tuesday morning. But at the last minute, the sheriff voluntarily pulled the request from the agenda. Ahern says his decision to push the discussion to next month has nothing to do with privacy advocates' concerns.
Privacy advocates including ACLU of Northern California are breathing a tentative sigh of relief though. Host Stephanie Martin talked with them about why the sheriff's original request to the supervisors concerned her.
Below is an edited transcript of KQED's conversation with Ahern about his drone request.
Stephanie Martin, KQED: I understand that you had an agenda request today on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, and it was something like item number 66. Some privacy experts said that it was kind of buried in there and they were concerned about it. What prompted you to pull that request from the agenda?
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern: Because I had promised to take this matter in front of the Public Safety Committee before I asked the Board of Supervisors to vote on this. There was a previous scheduled meeting for us at the Public Safety Committee but we got postponed. And so because we hadn’t yet vetted this out, no matter which we said, I requested that the matter be pulled.
Martin: So do you disagree with the charge that you had somehow buried this as somehow a way of pushing this through.
Ahern: Yeah, I absolutely disagree with that. I heard comments that said something about a press conference. I learned about the press conference after it was already gone. No one asked for my input as regards to this whatsoever. We drafted this letter the day before, with nothing other than getting it before the public safety committee.
Martin: I know drones have some potentially helpful uses, wildfire surveillance for example, search and rescue missions. Isn’t that what you told the public you wanted to consider buying one for?
Ahern: Yes, we’ve been working on this since August 2012. We brought this in front of the public at a Sheriff’s Advisory Committee meeting, and in order to be transparent in order to tell the community what we were requesting from Cal-EMA. At that time in August [we] told the community what the limitations and capabilities of this device were. And their uses are for search and rescue and they’d be helpful in disaster work or we could deploy our unit to see what the proper area to approach, an affected area. Also be effective in helping us evacuate people from an area. And a safe route both in and out of an area. We could also use this unmanned areal system for apprehension of violent felons and we told them we’d use it during events where people are trying to flee from law enforcement.
Martin: Now the ACLU has obtained documents that say you want the drone for something called intelligence and information sharing and dissemination, is that correct?
Ahern: That is correct, but the information and intelligence gathering would be during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Say for instance this area where we live had an Oakland Berkley Hills fire, or had an earthquake called a Loma Prieta, or a storm like we had this weekend. We could deploy our unmanned areal system, put it up in an area and see what areas had been affected and that’s how we’d gather our information and intelligence.
Martin: Now privacy advocates have raised the concern that you might use this for spying. What do you say to that?
Ahern: I say that’s inappropriate and offensive to me that people would make claims that I would do such a thing. We take the rights of people very seriously. Our duty is to protect people’s rights. So to violate that public trust would be wrong and unethical. And against the integrity that I have for what we do and what our agency has done in its history. So we would never use this system for civilian surveillance. And anyone that suggests we would do so is inaccurate.
Martin: What should the county do make sure that citizens understand that and know that there are limits to how you use drones.
Ahern: Well drones have a negative connotation. First of all, we’re trying to buy something about the size of a laptop. It has very strict limitations, [it] can fly about 400 feet in the air and has to fly within line of sight with the operators, [this] is one of the units we’re looking at. So that has a great deal of restrictions to it, along with the limitations. But we’d never use it for anything involving civilian surveillance. And I’ve agreed to put that in our policy, it would be written and it’s also, I believe, it’s in the requirements for the operator to be certified that they understand those privacy rights and how sensitive it is to our entire community.
Martin: State Senator Alex Padilla has just introduced a bill to regulate drones in California. Is this something you support?
Ahern: I haven’t had an opportunity to review that specific legislation, but the requirements from the FAA that I’ve been made aware of, and the policies and procedures that would be set in place, the public should be very comfortable knowing that we would never use this for anything other than a mission specific event and those events would be: search and rescue, pursuing violent felons, pursuing people evading law enforcement and having the air support during a natural disaster to see the safest routes for people to travel in and out of an area.
Martin: You’ve described this as the size of a laptop. How does it fly and what kind of surveillance can it take? I assume pictures are part of it, does it have an audio component?
Ahern: I’m not sure about the audio component of the one we’re looking at, but it has the capability to video link to the operator, or video downlink to a command post, or a mobile command post. They also have the ability to fly in an area…say there was a refinery that had poisonous gases, we’d be able to fly it in through the cloud and take samples so chemists would be able to detect what was in the cloud and what the hazards would be so we could warm people in the area what to do, shelter in place, or evacuate. Different units have different capabilities.
Martin: Are you surprised that the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy advocates are raising concerns here?
Ahern: I wouldn’t use the term surprised. They haven’t spoken to me about my intentions and they’ve made inferences that I don’t think are fair. But I have told the people I’m talking to and my agency and the politicians that are aware of what we are doing, what our capabilities are what our limitations and restrictions are and that we follow our policy and procedures in that vein. And we have prior history of following our procedures in that we are accredited in at least five other disciplines. We are required to obtain accreditation, like proof of complying with what we have in writing.
Martin: Have you been talking with colleagues in other districts who may be considering a drone as well?
Ahern: No. My understanding would be [the] Alameda County Sheriff’s Office would be the first law enforcement in California to put an unmanned areal system into place.
Martin: What’s ideal about Alameda County that would make this ideal place for that kind of aerial system?
Ahern: We have a history in this area that shows a need for this type of technology that would be beneficial to saving lives. We’ve had the earthquake in ’89, the firestorms in’91, we’ve had tsunami warnings in recent years that have done damage to our shores, we’ve had oil spills in the Bay, we have recent storms that have done severe damage. This is a great use of technology that will be of use to the community and I believe it will save lives.
Martin: Do you think you can sell this to the community?
Ahern: I have. I have sold it to the community. Everyone I’ve talked to except the ACLU is in favor, 100 percent in favor. No one I’ve presented this to, and I’ve presented it to dignitaries, community groups, put on the display in our urban field training exercised this summer. Everyone was impressed with the capabilities of this unit.