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Drones or No Drones? The Debate Drones On (News Analysis)

By Gar Smith
Monday May 13, 2013 - 10:35:00 AM
Berkeley citizens express their concerns over drones.
Wendy Kenin
Berkeley citizens express their concerns over drones.
UAVSI drone on display at hearing
Gar Smith
UAVSI drone on display at hearing
Members of the Peace and Justice Commission listen to testimony.
Wendy Kenin
Members of the Peace and Justice Commission listen to testimony.

Late last year, when word leaked that police in Alameda County and Berkeley were preparing to jump on the post-911 bandwagon by acquiring unmanned, aerial surveillance drones, it was the kind of news that makes a pacifist go ballistic. So, on December 18, 2012, squadrons of anti-drone activists homed in on a City Council meeting to demand that the city -- home of the country's first "Nuclear-Free Zone" -- declare itself a "No Drone Zone."

Despite the unanimous public outcry against the idea of "drones in Berkeley," when it came time to act, the council was split -- with a majority clearly entranced by the promise of the city owning its own high-tech drone to handle "emergency situations." The council ordered a time-out for further study. They did, however, agree to send a letter to Alameda's Sheriff and Board of Supervisors asking that the county "delay any action on the purchase of a drone until the City of Berkeley has completed its evaluation of the issue." 

(Note: It's not just the anti-war crowd that bridles at the idea of UAVs flying over public parks and backyard barbecues. The specter of homegrown drones has united Republicans, Democrats and Tea Partiers in 29 states that are currently working on new tri-partisan laws to rein in any potential use of drones in US cities. In February, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first US city to enact a drone-free ordinance.) 

An Anti-Drone Quorum at the Forum 

As part of the evaluation process, Berkeley's Peace & Justice Commission hosted a "Town Hall Forum on Drones" on May 1. Joined by members of the Police Review Commission, the two city panels heard testimony from five expert witnesses and 30 members of the audience. The Town Forum did not hear from either the BPD or the BFD, however. Police and fire department officials turned down invitations to participate in the discussion. 

The pros and cons raged for more than two hours. Only one of the five experts spoke in support of drones and only two members of the audience had anything good to say about the proposal to release unmanned spybots into the urban airspace. 

The sole pro-drone voice belonged to Patrick Egan, a spokesperson for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Eagan brought along a display table featuring a small drone and a series of aerial photos that he had snapped. Eagan promised to provide the board with copies of an AUVSI book called "First To Deploy -- Unmanned Aircraft For SAR & Law Enforcement." ["SAR" refers to Search and Rescue.] However, instead of a report linking drones and cops, AUVSI provided a 38-page study on "The Economic Impact" of UAVs. The only part that was relevant to California was on page 24 where three charts predicted drone deployment would create several thousand new jobs, $1.8 billion in "total economic impact," and more than $10 billion in added state tax revenues by 2015. 

A Chorus of Criticism 

The remaining speakers (from the ACLU, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, CopWatch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) chose to ignore the promise of economic gain and focused, instead, on the social and constitutional negatives. 

ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye began by noting the many ways drones raise serious Fourth Amendment privacy concerns. Lye also argued that deploying drones would likely violate the State Constitution's Article I, Section 1, which grants privacy protection for personal information. Lye listed four reasons to oppose drones: (1) They make surveillance "cheap", (2) they are "less obvious" to people being spied on, (3) they come with night-vision and infra-red capabilities that can "see through walls" to spy on the people inside and (4) they would be used in the SF Bay Area, which is one of the Federal government's "fusion centers" – a major hub for collecting and analyzing intercepted communications and intelligence data. 

The Alameda Sheriff would be one of the first state police agencies to acquire a drone. (Sacramento reportedly acquired a drone in 2007.) The Sheriff's latest budget is for a whopping $20 million and the ACLU has requested an explanation of what the money will be spent on. Lye said she was still "awaiting a response." 

Current law guarantees citizens only a "reasonable expectation of privacy." But what is "reasonable" these days? "It could take years to resolve this in court," Lye noted, "but technology evolves much faster than constitutional law. So we need to act now." 

If drones were to be allowed, Lye advised, they should only be used upon the issuance of a warrant based on probable cause -- and there should be no sharing of gathered information between departments. 

The Rise of the Surveillance Society 

Don't be tempted by promises of grants from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, Lye cautioned, since these are essentially bribes intended to prime the pump for the corporations set to benefit from the expansion of the Surveillance Society. It might not be fiscally prudent to rush to purchase any new surveillance toys, Lye argued. As an example of an investment that went sour, she pointed to the recall of the TSA's controversial full-body scanners, which she characterized as "a $45 million mistake." 

After enduring the crowd's enthusiastic applause during Lye's litany of criticisms, AUVSI's Eagan approached the microphone with an edge to his voice. 

"So you don't have fixed wing aircraft in Berkeley? You don't have helicopters?" he chided, in a mistaken attempt to establish that the crowd accepted planes and choppers but had a unique bias against drones. Eagan seemed caught be surprise when someone in the audience shouted, "Police helicopters are banned in Berkeley!" 

"Well, then," Eagan shot back, "I guess you [people of Berkeley] like privacy more than public safety!" 

Eagen went on to argue that store and street surveillance cameras, along with telephone, computer and text spying "already exist" (so more is better?). He suggested that drones were great tools for "studying grass fires" and finding lost children. (The argument that hovering cameras can be used to "find a lost child" or "an elderly person with Alzheimer's" comes up so often, it's become something of a running joke.) 

Commissioner George Lippman asked if the AUSVI received any money from companies that manufacture drones but the query failed to elicit a clear response. 

Why the 'Drones to the Rescue' Argument Won't Fly 

Nadia Kayyali, a Legal Fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, began her presentation by recalling how the Alameda and Berkeley cops (in cahoots with the UC Berkeley campus police) had been embarrassed by exposure of a secret plan to jointly purchase and share an armored personnel carrier. Kayyali called the new push for drones another "rushed implementation that is being fueled by money." 

Kayyali quickly dismissed the "rescue drone" arguments. The battery-powered drones being considered for city purchase can't fly for more than 25 minutes at a time, they can only be flown during the day, they need to be controlled by two operators, they must be flown in "line-of-sight," they can't be operated more than 400 feet above the ground, they can't be flown on windy days and, if you tried to use one to monitor a grass fire or a burning building, it would probably start to melt. 

Kayyali's conclusion? "Current drone technology is best suited for one thing: surveillance." Because drones can "hover very quietly outside of windows," Kayyali warned, the ability "to conduct covert surveillance with a small piece of equipment is unprecedented." 

(The short battery life may not be a problem for future drones. Work now is underway to design metal tails that will allow drones to grab energy from city power lines and new ground-based laser systems may allow operators to recharge drones while they are still in flight.) 

It's Raining Cats and Drones 

Even in the best of conditions, drones would pose significant risks to public safety. "Drones are unproven in American civilian airspace" and the record of UAVs in combat situations is troubling Kayyali stated. "They are the least safe class of aircraft in operation." Customs and Border Protection has reported 52.7 drone accidents per 100,000 hours of flight time -- seven times the accident rate for all of civil aviation. 

One of the latest cases of "drones behaving badly" occurred last September when the Sheriff of Montgomery County, Texas, showed up for a demonstration of his department's new $300,000 Shadowhawk drone. The UAV successfully soared into the air -- only to plummet back to earth. It crashed into the police department's prized Bear Cat armored tank, which had been parked nearby. 

In combat zones, drones have experienced what the Pentagon likes to call "control uplink failures." These glitches have caused combat drones to "go rogue," requiring soldiers to chase after them and shoot them down. 

Even with the best camera technology, drones lack the critical "see-and-avoid" ability of a human pilot. To date, the FAA has not been able to find any collision avoidance system that can guarantee a drone won't fly into a commercial aircraft. (This is not a theoretical risk. In August 2011, a Shadow UAV crashed into the wing of a C-130 in the skies over Afghanistan.) 

Can Drones Be Weaponized? 

Kayyali cited a "large and expanding toolkit [that] makes drones incredibly powerful tools of surveillance" including "high-definition cameras, infrared systems which can see through obstacles, radar, LIDAR, the ability to intercept cell phone communications, 'less lethal' weapons, and lethal weapons." 

Kayyali noted that Alameda Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern went on record on February 14 warning that he would have no qualms about using drones to monitor public demonstrations. "I'm not going to tell you we wouldn't use [a drone] in the event that a crowd turned violent." 

But drones clearly have the potential to escalate those situations in which the police "turn violent." As Kayyali explained: "Drones are currently being armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, with obvious implications for public activism." 

Can the Police Be Trusted? 

In addition to the question: Can drones be trusted? Andrea Prichett, testifying on behalf of Berkeley CopWatch, raised a related question: Can the Berkeley police be trusted? "The BPD doesn't comply with the public records act," Prichett charged and "unlike Oakland and San Francisco, the BPD doesn't post its policies on police tactics." If the BPD were to obtain a drone, could the department be trusted to respect civil rights? "If we can't even get them to come to this meeting, I'm not very hopeful," Prichett noted grimly. 

Two members of the Peace and Justice Commission then mentioned cases where the BPD had refused to release photos or investigative information to the Commission. "If we can't get … one picture, how would we get photos from a drone?" a commissioner asked. 

Then it was the audience's turn. 

Public Testimony Favors a 'No Drone Zone' 

For the next hour, drones were critiqued and ridiculed by a host of speakers from a range of organizations including The World Can't Wait, Iraq Vets Against War, Environmentalists Against War, and the Nevada Desert Experience. 

A member of CopWatch spoke of the psychological stress of living under drones, citing "the intimidation factor of constant surveillance." In addition to the noise of hovering drones, sound-equipped UAVs would allow police "overseers" to bark orders and threats from the sky. 

Referring to repeated problems with microphones and one speaker's attempt to screen a PowerPoint presentation, lawyer and political activist Ann Fagin Ginger (founder of Berkeley's Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute), pointedly observed: "If we can't get our mikes and computers to work, what makes us think drones will work?" 

A member of the Asian Law Caucus noted that many of the police drones are built by the same companies that build drones the Pentagon uses to commit "targeted assassinations." Case in point: the 13.2-pound Stalker (yes, that's what they chose to name it) is built by the military arms giant Lockheed-Martin. 

One dubious speaker ridiculed the idea of "search and rescue" drones. "Drones aren't like helicopters," she pointed out. "They don't have onboard stretchers or ropes or doctors." 

"As a civil libertarian, I'm opposed to drones," one speaker added. "But as a journalist, I can't wait to get my own drone so I can spy on city politicians and monitor and record police operations in Berkeley." 

One speaker held up a copy of the March 2013 National Geographic and read some choice excerpts: 


Even when controlled by skilled, well-intentioned operators, drones can pose a hazard -- that’s what the FAA is concerned about. The safety record of military drones is not reassuring. Since 2001, according to the Air Force, its three main UAVs -- the Predator, Global Hawk, and Reaper -- have been involved in at least 120 "mishaps," 76 of which destroyed the drone. The statistics don’t include drones operated by the other branches of the military or the CIA. Nor do they include drone attacks that accidentally killed civilians or US or allied troops…. 

GPS is vulnerable…. Its signals can be blocked by buildings or deliberately jammed. In December 2011, when a CIA drone crashed in Iran, authorities there claimed they had diverted it by hacking its GPS…. 

[Dave] Raquet [a lab technician] demonstrates … with a square drone powered by rotors at each corner. On the first try the drone, buzzing like a nest of enraged hornets, flips over. On the second it crashes into a wall. “This demonstrates the need for trust,” Raquet says with a strained smile. 

A Pandora's Box Filled with Drones 

It wasn't until well into the final hour of the debate that the two camps were able to find some common ground. Speaking from the audience, AUSVI's Chet Hartridge (seeming to sense the overwhelming consensus) conceded: "I believe in the Forth Amendment. I don't want to be photographed in the nude in my backyard either." 

After listening to the evening's testimony (which clearly favored declaring Berkeley a "No Drone Zone"), Drone Subcommittee Chair Bob Meola announced that he had been convinced the Commission should return to its original demand for an outright ban on drones within the city boundaries. (Hobbyists still would be allowed to fly small drones over non-residential recreational areas.) 

Another commissioner asked what would happen if the County bought a drone and tried to fly it through Berkeley's airspace. The answer came from a woman in the audience: "Shoot it down!" she hollered. This prompted another Commissioner to surmise that, if drones were ever flown over Oakland, "they would be used for target practice!" 

These comments brought some welcome mirth to the high-stakes battle to keep the city's skies drone-free. As one participant noted: "If we can't stop drones in Berkeley, where can you stop this technology?" 

But the unique -- and looming -- threat of drones is not a laughing matter. 

Returning to that National Geographic story, here are some additional passages the speaker did not have time to read into the record: 

What, one might ask, will prevent terrorists and criminals from getting their hands on some kind of lethal drone? Although American officials rarely discuss the threat in public, they take it seriously. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, says it has obtained drones from Iran.  

Last November, a federal court sentenced a Massachusetts man to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack Washington, D.C., with drones loaded with C-4 explosives…. 

The answer to the threat of drone attacks, some engineers say, is more drones. “The new field is counter-UAVs….” [designed to] enable one UAV to spot and destroy another, either by ramming it or shooting it down. 

Just imagine how profitable a Global Drone War on Drones could become! 

You can watch the entire Town Forum on YouTube: