By Linda Lye, ACLU of Northern California  | October 19, 2012

Shortly before next week’s one-year anniversary of the Oakland Police Department’sbrutal crackdown on Occupy Oakland, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern announced that he was seeking funds to purchase a drone to engage in unspecified unmanned aerial surveillance. One of the many unfortunate lessons of OPD’s Occupy crackdown is that when law enforcement has powerful and dangerous tools in its arsenal, it will use them. Drones raise enormous privacy concerns and can easily be abused. Before any drone acquisition proceeds, we need to ask a threshold question – are drones really necessary in our community? – and have a transparent and democratic process for debating that question. In addition, if the decision is made to acquire a drone, do we have rigid safeguards and accountability mechanisms in place, so that law enforcement does not use drones to engage in warrantless mass surveillance? The ACLU of Northern California has sent the Sheriff a Public Records Act request, demanding answers to these crucial questions.

Drones should never be used for indiscriminate mass surveillance, and police should never use them unless there are legitimate grounds to believe they will collect evidence related to a specific instance of criminal wrongdoing or in emergencies.

One of the reasons cited by Sheriff Ahern in support of drones is that they are much cheaper than other forms of aerial surveillance; by his account, a helicopter costs $3 million to purchase and a drone less than 1/30 of that. But the relative inexpensiveness of electronic surveillance is also precisely why strong safeguards need to be in place. When the police have to mount elaborate and costly foot and squad patrols to follow a suspect 24/7, the expenditure of resources serves as a deterrent to abuse; it forces the police to limit their surveillance to instances when it is actually necessary. Drones permit the police to surveil people at all hours of the day and, apparently, at 1/30 the cost of other forms of aerial surveillance. The natural deterrent to abuse goes away, and invites abuse. This makes strong safeguards absolutely essential.

Before Sheriff Ahern proceeds with the drone acquisition, the community deserves answers to the questions we raised in our Public Records Act request: Why are drones necessary? How much will they cost? And what safeguards will be in place to prevent abuse?