Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What's Alameda County Got To Do With It?

I have never paid attention to my relationship to Alameda County before. I don't know if I've ever voted for an Alameda County Board of Supervisors, in fact, I don't know if I *can* vote for an Alameda County Board of Supervisor, even though Oakland is very much in the heart of ALCO, as those of us who live here affectionately (?) call it. Further, looking at this map of ALCO districts, I can't even tell what district I'm in, as the districts that cover Oakland seem to split right down my neighborhood. But it's time to pay attention to ALCO, as they're the ones who can (or can't, depending whose legal opinion you take) decide if the Alameda County Sheriff can purchase one (or two, depending on what day you ask Sheriff Ahern) drone that will definitely fly over Oakland, which is definitely in Alameda County. Oh, and it might fly anywhere between Monterey County and the Oregon border, because even though the large majority of those places are NOT in ALCO, and the majority of people who live there definitely don't get to vote for the ALCO supervisors, Sheriff Ahern of ALCO is in charge of "Area 2" mutual aide, and because of this, he gets to use his drone in any of those areas.

I'm an avid follower of Oakland City Council meetings. Those who know themacinator (or her alterego on twitter, @greenkozi) know this. I've never bothered to pay attention to ALCO, because, to be perfectly honest, I think of the county as our boondock neighbors: the unincorporated areas stretching out to Livermore that I disdain as not really the East Bay, the areas that give the East Bay the bad stench of "suburbia." I didn't even know that ALCO Board of Sups met in Oakland, right downtown. When I started in animal welfare, I worked out near Santa Rita, which is run by ALCO, and by the shelter, also run by ALCO, which was tiny and quaint, and often had about 5 dogs in it. Sweet, provincial, I thought. Recently Oakland has started contracting the with sheriff's office to do traffic stops, etc, and I started paying more attention. Then came the drone.

Berkeley was the first jurisdiction that the drone would fly over to really pay attention. Citizens of our righteous neighbor to the north asked their government to create a no-fly zone to go along with the no-nuke zone, but this idea was, well, nuked. The Berkeley City Council did, however, send a pretty explicit and well thought out letter to Alameda County about their concerns about Sheriff Ahern's proposed drone usage, including the following:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the Council of the City of Berkeley the City of Berkeley expresses its concern about the proliferation of drones and domestic law enforcement and the lack of adequate regulations to protect against improper surveillance and to protect the privacy rights of citizens...

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED the Berkeley City Council urges the Alameda county sheriff and the Board of supervisors to not purchase a drone...

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Berkeley urges the Alameda county Sheriff to not fly drones over Berkeley air space except 1) in the case of a disaster, 2) to assist in locating missing persons, 3) to assist in rescue efforts, 4) to assist in police pursuit of known suspects who have committed serious or violent crimes.
To the best of my knowledge drones have neither been publicly discussed nor put on the agenda of a City Council meeting in Oakland.

So. First, my observations about Alameda County meetings. The meeting yesterday was a "Public Protection Committee" meeting, not a full Board of Supervisors meeting, but some observations are still worth noting. First, the meetings are held in the Administrative Building of the Court of Alameda. You have to go through an airport-style security screening to get in- laptops out, belts off, etc. This seems excessive, but I suppose is par for the course in court buildings now. The meeting was held in a beautiful renovated room on the top floor. I'm talking windows, natural light, electrical outlets for laptops, plush seats that reclined, etc. This might sound like a typical hearing room, but it's night and day from Oakland. Part of me thinks that chambers in Oakland have historical value, but part of me feels like there's no reason people shouldn't be comfortable. Then there were the two Supervisors present, Haggerty and Valle. I'll have to read up more on these guys, but Haggerty was clearly quite conservative- made jokes about getting drones at Costco for his kid and repeatedly shut down and condescended to the ACLU lawyer, while Valle seemed sincerely interested in protecting civil liberties. The tone in the room was serious and I didn't see anyone playing with their phones. Again, this seems like it should be a given, but it was a change from Oakland meetings, and the audience seemed to act accordingly. Though many of the same people came to discuss drones as come to Oakland meetings to discuss public safety (I recognized many Occupy activists), there was generally quiet until near the end when many in the audience clapped for well spoken anti-drone activists. Speakers with viewpoints were itemized on the agendas: Sheriff's presentations, ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc, with time limits. Then each public forum speaker was allotted 3 minutes and they just queued up and handed in their cards to the clerk: no calling of names, etc. Their time was clearly shown on a screen in front of them, and for the ten speakers I stayed for, not one went even a second over their time. The meeting flowed smoothly, with no threats of escorting people out. I only heard Sup Haggerty instruct chambers to be quiet once.

This is not to say this is not a charged issue, only that it was almost impossible to believe that these meetings take place blocks apart, with many of the same people present.

So the substance of the meeting (it's been a few days since I started this blog, and since then many pieces have been written by mainstream media (MSM), and other places, and my memory is fading, but I'll do my best): The sheriff and his commanders gave powerpoint presentations, brought out a demo of the drone (where did they get it? was it a real one or a dummy? if it was real, had they already purchased it?), appealed to our sentiments- if our young daughter had been abducted, wouldn't we want the assistance of a drone?, and basically said, "hey, we're good guys," we will only use the drone for good. The ALCO reps insisted on the term "sUAS"- "small unmanned aircraft system," and reiterated that the drone would not be used for surveillance (this came up later when Sheriff Ahern interrupted anyone who used the term "surveil" to insist that this would not happen).

Then Linda Lye (@linda_lye) of ACLU Northern California spoke about her concerns about the usage of drones and the need to tighten up the policy that was being discussed. She said that ACLU NorCal had met with the Sheriff's Office, which was great, but the Sheriffs had then proceeded to ignore all of the suggestions. One of the main issues that Lye pointed out is that this policy was actually a "General Order": an internal document for ALCO Sheriffs: they can change it at will with no oversight. The GO, as it stood, was already designed to allow the kind of surveillance that the Sheriff kept denying. The loopholes that exist can grow and change anytime. To me, Lye came across as extremely reasonable. Where previously I had been an adamant No Drone kind of girl, I felt she was making a great point: there is nothing inherently terrible about a drone, but there are very dangerous things about the usage of drones, and policies must be in place to prevent government abuse. Some specifics: the GO did not state what kind of crimes it would be used for. She gave the example of jaywalking, clearly an overreach, but explained that in a protest situation, people are arrested for obstructing streets and this can be charged as a misdemeanor. Because the policy allows for misdemeanors, and drones will most likely be used in large protests (think Occupy or Port situations), this is not an overreach anymore. Further, she said that becuase the low cost of drones is precisely an argument FOR drones on the Sheriff's part, drones become terribly tempting to use: it becomes easy to use the drone Just Because. Lye was great: the drones should be used for "emotionally appealing" things, just like that lost child, or the old person on the train tracks that the Sheriff brought up later, not the criminal stuff that Ahern wanted. ALCO would be an outlier if they adopted this policy.

Bottom line: the ACLU, maybe the arbiter of reasonable but accurate information according to most progressives who care about these things, told ALCO that they needed to watch their step on this one. And one of the main reasons was something I had never even heard of: fusion centers. Fusion centers are repositories of information shared between jurisdictions on the local, state and federal level thanks to the Department of Homeland Security. This is not a conspiracy theory, this is something the DHS bragged about. And when called to task about, Sheriff Ahern said he didn't see any reason why he would want to share any info with a fusion center. He also wouldn't commit to NOT sharing info with a fusion center, nor would he commit to declining grant money that required he turn information collected over to a fusion center. The DHS has a "If You See Something, Say Something," program: they specifically encourage agencies to speak up when they, well, see something.

The director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke after Lye in another pretty starkly convincing proposal about how the Sheriff was willing to throw away civil liberties in favor of a new toy. Alameda County Against Drones (@nomby on twitter) spoke passionately against all drones over our backyards whatsoever. Since I started writing this, Mother Jones has written about the same meeting. So, I'll stop now.

Bottom line: if you live in Oakland, this matters. If you live anywhere in California from Monterey to Oregon, this matters.


Gene Anderson said...

To figure out exactly which supervisor district (and flood control district and everything else), see this handy page on the acgov site.

thb said...

One (only one?) positive aspect of drones: can they positively identify individuals? if so, then the ability to place the right person at a specific spot and time seems beneficial in avoiding accusing the wrong person of a crime. True?

themacinator said...

@thb: i suppose it could be, if the drone actually caught a crime in process, which would mean it would have to be used in surveillence, which is something that i would put in the negative column.

if i remember correctly, facial recognition software is something that this drone can be equipped with but doesn't have yet which is something EFF is concerned with- since ALCO hasn't specified exactly what they're going to use it for, and sense they'll be sharing their data with fusion centers who definitely won't be specifying what they're using it for, and don't have to, really (think Patriot Act), it's definitely the kind of thing that stats out as one of those good ideas and quickly falls into one of those, holy shit, they've got all my info and i didn't realize what this was turning into!