Alameda County's spy drone

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Here come the planes: Look out, spy drones overhead

We all knew it was coming, but the ACLU has the docs to prove it's about to start happening here: The Alameda County Sheriff's Office is trying to buy a drone aircraft in part to spy on people.

Now: Sheriff Gregory Ahern has insisted in public statements and in communications to the Board of Supervisors that he wants to use said drone only for search and rescue missions, disaster response, and checking out things like wildfires. But the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have documents they obtained under the California Public Records Act that show the sheriff intends to use the drone for "intelligence and information sharing" -- oh, and to prevent terrorism. Which he's not going to do by flying over wildfires and looking for lost kids.

The documents, which will be released in full Dec. 4 at a press conference on the steps of the County Administration Building, include a grant application to the state's Emergency Management Agency which outlines the proposed uses. "Clearly, if the sheriff's certification to Cal-EMA is true, his office intends to use the drone for surveillance and intelligence gathering, a purpose not clearly disclosed to the Board," staff attorney Linda Lye notes in a letter to the supervisors.

There's an item on the Dec. 4 board agenda giving the sheriff the ability to apply for and receive grants for the drone, and the ACLU, for very good reasons, wants the item continued until there can be some more discussion on this.

Here's the thing about law-enforcement tools: You give the cops a weapon, they're going to use it. Give 'em Tasers, they'll zap people. Give 'em a spy drone, they'll spy on us.

Can you imagine having a spy drone circling overhead when Occupy groups were meeting to discuss actions and tactics? You want it flying near the offices of political groups that the sheriff may consider a threat to public safety? You want it equipped with cameras and listening devices?

The county supervisors at this point have no policy positions on how a drone can be used, because they haven't had to address it yet. But here it is -- the sheriff has already solicited bids from suppliers, and is itching to get that spy baby up in the air. This whole thing needs to slow down.

In fact, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) just introduced a bill to regulate drones in the state. “I am concerned because domestic drones have the potential to be used for surreptitious surveillance activities that infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights.  We must ensure that there are clear guidelines in place that protect the rights of all Californians,” Padilla says in a press release I just got in my email box.

Maybe the sheriff should hold off spending any money on this thing until there are state guidelines in place. At the very least, the county supervisors should hold off giving him approval until they have rules of their own -- rules that specifically ban the use of the drone for spying. (Oh, and the flight logs need to be public records, so we can see what's really going on with the eye in the sky.)