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Sheriff Acquires Drones 'In Secret', Defying Widespread Public Concern

"clearly an effort to bypass the public process."

Image source: WPIX-TV

Residents in California made one thing abundantly clear to police in that city last year: don't use a drone.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing in February 2013. At the hearing, just one person in attendance was in favor of allowing Sheriff Greg Ahern to acquire federal funding for the purchase of an unmanned flying object.

So when the news broke Wednesday that Ahern went against the public's wishes and purchased not one – but two – drones "in secret," a firestorm erupted.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the sheriff spent $97,000 from the county's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services on two aerial drones. But they will not be used for surveillance purposes “in any shape, manner or form," according to Ahern."They’re designed for mission-specific incidents," he said.

Image source: WPIX-TV Image source: WPIX-TV

But civil liberties groups seem to be just as concerned with how the drones were obtained as they are with how the drones might be used.

“This is a troubling example of law enforcement trying to acquire invasive and extremely unpopular surveillance technology in secret," said Linda Lye, an ACLU senior staff attorney in San Francisco. "There was a huge hue and cry when he did in secret, and he’s done it in secret a second time."

Meanwhile, Ahern maintains he's done nothing wrong, telling local media, "There's nothing secret about what we've done... This is how our department acquires equipment on a regular basis.'"

The sheriff added he'd made it "very clear" that he intended to acquire drones. But Lye said that wasn't at all what she was led to believe. Based on exchanges she had with Ahern she said she was under the impression the issue had been put on the back burner.

"This is clearly an effort to bypass the public process," Lye said.

Just ahead of the public hearing in February 2013, the group Alameda County Against Drones issued this statement:

"Drones invade privacy. Small drones, of the type sought by Sheriff Ahern, can be equipped with live, high-definition video, LIDAR imaging, license plate readers, facial recognition, and other surveillance technologies. The sheriff seeks an infrared-equipped drone that can see through cover. His proposed policy offers token limitations on drone use, but swallows this rule with exceptions: drones are to be flown over any “crime scene” or in support of “fire prevention” efforts, potentially expanding their jurisdiction to political demonstrations, or anything flammable."

Although Alameda County has already obtained the drones, it won't be able to use them for another "six months to a year." That's about how long it's expected to take the Federal Aviation Administration to authorize the use of such devices.

(H/T: Gizmodo)

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

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