Alameda County Sheriff has Secret Plans to Unleash Surveillance Drone, Documents Show

Dec 04, 2012
Linda Lye

Page Media


Buried on the Board of Supervisor's 66-item agenda for its December 4, 2012 hearing was a surprising request by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office for approval to "apply for, accept and administer" funds from the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal-EMA) to buy a drone.

This was very troubling for a number of reasons.

The Sheriff to date has not been forthcoming about his intentions and actions in acquiring a drone. The sheriff has told the public and the board that he intends to use the drone for search and rescue. Documents recently obtained by the ACLU of Northern California, however, confirm that he actually intends to use the drone for surveillance. Drones are capable of stockpiling detailed, personal information and are subject to tremendous abuse. Before any drone acquisition proceeds, we need to ask whether drones are really necessary in our community and have a transparent and democratic process for debating that question. If the decision is ultimately made to acquire a drone, we need to have rigid safeguards and accountability mechanisms in place, so that law enforcement does not use drones for warrantless, mass surveillance.

The Sheriff has also told the public that his office is only in the preliminary stages of potentially acquiring a drone. Documents we obtained show this also to be false. Additionally, by burying this important issue on the Board's agenda, the sheriff is attempting to bypass full scrutiny and review by the public and Board of Supervisors. Before we rush to acquire a drone, the county's civilian elected leaders should engage in a thoughtful and transparent debate, with ample opportunity for public participation.

Records recently obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a Public Records Act request to Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern undermine public statements by sheriff's office officials that drones would be used for search and rescue and other purposes unrelated to surveillance, and that the drone acquisition process was merely in a preliminary stage:

  • Public comments by sheriff's officials when news of the potential drone acquisition first emerged in October emphasized potential use in search and rescue. The sheriff repeated this in a document he just submitted to the Board of Supervisors, in which he states that the drone will be used for "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."

    But documents we obtained show that the sheriff is clearly contemplating use of the drone for surveillance. A document from Cal-EMA shows that the sheriff has been awarded $31,646 in grant funds to buy a drone. According to these documents, the sheriff wants a drone for "Intelligence and Information sharing and Dissemination." The sheriff also certified to Cal-EMA that the drone would be used for "Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention-oriented Activities." It's unclear how a search and rescue mission would prevent terrorism. Clearly, if the sheriff's certification to Cal-EMA is true, he intends to use the drone for surveillance and intelligence gathering – a purpose he has thus far failed to mention to the public and even the Board of Supervisors.

  • According to an October 18, 2012 LA Times article, "Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the sheriff's office said the department was only in the preliminary stages of possibly purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles." But six days earlier, on October 12, 2012, the department had already received notification that it had been awarded $31,646 in Homeland Security Grant Funds from Cal-EMA to cover the purchase of an "unmanned aerial system." An earlier request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation indicates that the sheriff applied for these funds as early as July 2012. Applying for and receiving grant funds to buy a drone hardly seems "preliminary."

    (After receiving the Cal-EMA document, we also submitted a Public Records Act request to Cal-EMA to find out just how many other law enforcement agencies have applied for drone funding, and how many other grants Cal-EMA has awarded for this purpose.)

  • The documents we obtained also show that the sheriff has already solicited and received three bids from vendors to sell the county a drone. Lockheed Martin's proposal was to sell the County its AR425 QuadRotor at a cost of $49,981. It's offer was good for only one month, and had an expiration date of November 26, 2012. Aeryon Labs, Inc. has offered two quotations, one, for its Aeryon Scout Pro system, which would cost $107,500 and the other, for its Aeryon Scout Civilian System, which would cost $67,500. This company is offering optional thermal infrared and video zoom capabilities at additional cost. Finally, a third vendor, ING Engineering, has quoted its VTOL "Scout" system, at a cost of Canadian Dollars $89,500 (approximately US$90,157), with optional thermal imaging and zoom features at additional cost. Again, the Sheriff's Office has gone so far as to obtain concrete, time-sensitive bids. This is much more than merely the "preliminary stages of possibly purchasing" a drone.

As soon as we learned of the Sheriff's effort to obtain summary approval for its drone request from the Board of Supervisors, we sent a letter to the Board demanding that it withhold approval. The sheriff's effort to slip in his request for approval of the drone on the Board's agenda was particularly troubling not only because it skips the basic question whether the county should buy a drone at all (many residents say no), but also because there are no written safeguards yet in place for how the drone would be used. The Sheriff in his submission to the board promised to abide by the constitution and all applicable laws – in other words, to trust him to do the right thing. But if he has not even been candid that he intends to use the drone for surveillance, can he be trusted to use a drone in a way that respects our privacy rights?

A few hours after we sent our letter to the Board of Supervisors, we received a call from the county counsel's office saying that the sheriff would voluntarily withdraw the request for drone approval from the board's agenda. While that is good news – sort of – it shows that the sheriff, by putting the matter on the agenda to begin with, has not been taking concerns about drones seriously. It's time to bring the drone debate where it belongs – into full public view.

Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.