SAN JOSE -- San Jose police say what is believed to be the Bay Area's first police drone will only be used for bomb cases. Critics fear it's the first step toward streamlined spying on residents and gathering information without a warrant.
The $7,000 drone purchased earlier this year looks like a homemade contraption, and it comes with a mount for a standard Go-Pro video camera. Police officials say the drone is far from being air-ready, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and the creation of policies governing its use, which police contend will be for only one purpose.
"Speaking today, our intent is to use it for bomb purposes and bomb purposes only," police spokesman Officer Albert Morales said.
But civil liberties groups are sounding the alarm about the drone. They have long challenged the adoption of drones by law enforcement, citing fears of warrantless intelligence-gathering and surveillance. Prior attempts to get drones by Bay Area police agencies, including San Francisco police and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, were spurned by political pushback centered on those privacy concerns.
"They may say now it's for bomb detection, but tomorrow they may decide to surveil communities of color or watch over a political protest," said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for ACLU California. "With the revelations of NSA spying the last couple of years and growing community understanding of how surveillance can be misused, the public is no longer willing to accept the 'Just trust us' approach."
Ozer was among several critics decrying the lack of a usage policy for the drones and how its funding was sought by police and subsequently approved by the San Jose City Council in November with little to no public disclosure or discussion. The drone was purchased in January, and its existence surfaced in July only after exhaustive records requests by public records watchdog MuckRock and Vice. Morales contends the department's records response was slowed by bureaucratic hiccups and not any intent to conceal information.
Opponents also note that the drone, funded by the federal preparedness-oriented Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, backed by the Department of Homeland Security, could be available to other local police via mutual-aid agreements, widening its potential surveillance footprint.
"There is something fundamentally different about a drone," said Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has a Ph.D. in robotics. "It's cheaper than a helicopter and doesn't take an expert pilot. The affordability and ease of use means it could be used to perpetually surveil people. You should have to get a warrant first, and we don't think that's unreasonable."
Morales said the department is aware of the controversy surrounding the use of drones by the government and said Police Chief Larry Esquivel has ordered the department to create policies outlining the circumstances when the drone can be deployed, which he said will be presented to the public, including organizations like the ACLU, for feedback.
"We understand how sensitive this topic is, and how the machinery could be utilized for other means," Morales said. "We still need to get FAA approval, and ensure bomb technicians are properly trained."
He added: "When we get a piece of technology that can help us do our job more effectively and maintain safety, we owe it to our community to go and do that. It's merely another tool for law enforcement and in this case bomb callouts to keep officers and the public out of harm's way."
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, the county's other comparably sized police agency to San Jose, said it will remain on the sidelines on the drone issue.
"We know there has been movement in law enforcement toward this, but at this time we don't have any or have plans to acquire a drone," Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup said.
Part of that may be driven by a desire to avoid the kind of controversy that SJPD finds itself in, with one local law enforcement official, speaking confidentially, saying "the public perception is terrible right now. It makes a lot of sense as a tool, but right now it's not worth the headache."
The multi-rotor drone in question -- a Century Neo 660 V2 made by San Jose-based Century Helicopter Products -- conjures images far different from those of the sleek, unmanned Predators used to destroy military targets: The 2-foot-wide product can support a GoPro video camera and accompanying transmitter and is on the "hobby" end of such Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). In a grant proposal, police Sgt. Douglas Wedge wrote that it "will provide the capability to inspect suspicious packages in areas with limited accessibility or in a confined space" like "stairways and hallways" that existing bomb robots cannot access.
That application might be optimistic given the maneuverability of such devices, said Dennis Kenney, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in police-training procedures.
"The practicality is problematic. These things are not easy to fly, and flying them inside buildings, they might end up upside down more often than not," Kenney said.
He did note that UAV's overall could greatly bolster police capabilities, particularly in supplanting the roles of helicopters that are notoriously expensive to maintain. But he agreed with civil liberties groups about the importance of incorporating public input for such a move.
"Certainly the civil liberty concerns are real," he said. "The solution is not to eliminate the technology but to propose the adoption of drones for specific reasons, and propose policies and have the city enact ordinances to limit its use to those circumstances."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.