So, great: Somewhere in the bowels of the San Jose Police Department, we have a drone bought with federal money -- a Neo 660 V2, to be precise -- a 2-foot wide device that can carry a camera and transmit back incredibly invasive pictures of taxpayers.
As the first department in the Bay Area to have such a toy, the police say they want to use the $7,000 drone to supplement the work of the bomb squad: It would be used in tight, confined spaces that bomb robots cannot reach.
Seven months after acquiring the drone, the police department still has not developed guidelines about how it will be used. That's telling. If the point is to protect police lives, as the cops say, it's hard to see it being confined solely to the bomb squad.
"The police say they want to use it to disarm bombs,'' says Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But tomorrow it could be used for surveillance of communities of color. When you don't have strict oversight of invasive police techniques, it's ripe for problems.''
So I've got a very simple answer: Sell the contraption. Turn it back to the manufacturer. Put it on eBay or Craigslist. If you take a small loss -- and given that this was purchased with public money, we probably spent too much -- it's nothing compared to the controversy it sparks.
I say that for two reasons: First, drone technology is different from any other surveillance equipment. Because it's cheaper than a helicopter and doesn't require an expert to operate, it can be used to put people under constant surveillance. The most sophisticated drones can intercept texts or pick up heat images through walls.
Deputy Chief Dave Hober told me the "primary'' purpose of the drone was disarming bombs, and I don't doubt him. But that leaves open a secondary purpose or two.
Is there a potentially explosive Hells Angels funeral at Oak Hill Cemetery? The temptation to use the drone is overwhelming. Is there an angry march on City Hall? Ditto. Where do you draw the line? Don't forget: The drone can be loaned to other cities with laxer guidelines.
The second problem is how the drone was acquired. It was bought with federal Homeland Security money, approved as part of a bigger security package on the City Council's consent calendar last November.
No public debate
You heard that right: There was no public debate on getting a drone. This is a technology that was rejected in San Francisco and Alameda County because of public opposition. In San Jose, the City of the Big Shrug, it sailed through. Hey, it's not our money. The feds paid.
There's a long tradition in San Jose of important decisions being made with little public contribution: In December 2005, for instance, the council approved a 90 percent retirement plan for cops, a huge multi-million-dollar expense, in five minutes. Everything was negotiated in closed session.
Councilman Pete Constant, an ex-cop, told me he wants to see what kind of privacy guidelines the cops come with up with on the drone. He doesn't want it buzzing his backyard barbecue. That's fair.
But we should have had that conversation long before San Jose ever acquired a drone. In the meantime, the answer is really very simple: Get rid of it. Turn it back in. It's a toxic toy.