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Privacy issues raised in Alameda County's possible use of drones

October 18, 2012 |  2:58 pm

Civil rights groups expressed privacy concerns Thursday following reports that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is exploring whether to purchase drones as part of its enforcement efforts.

The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, held a news conference outside Oakland City Hall.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said one concern is that the history of police enforcement in the area shows that “when law enforcement has powerful and dangerous tools in its arsenal, it will use them” and that drones would likely be used for more than just certain situations.

The ACLU filed a public records request with the sheriff’s office, asking how much the drones would cost both to acquire as well as to maintain and operate, whether or not they’re needed, and “what safeguards would be in place in order to prevent their abuse,” Lye said.

“There’s a huge question about whether the sheriff’s office should be using these at all. But if they are going to use them, there should be very stringent mechanisms in place to enforce accountability,” Lye said.

Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the sheriff’s office said the department was only in the preliminary stages of possibly purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles.

“We would use it for specific events, not to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county looking for whatever,” Nelson said. “This would be the same kind of drones that are being used by some news agencies today.”

Nelson said there were a number of scenarios he could envision the drones -– which he estimates will cost between $50,000 and $100,000 -– being helpful, including assisting SWAT and bomb squads. If the department did purchase drones, he said it “would definitely have to come up with some sort of a policy.”

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-- Ari Bloomekatz

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