Few words produce as many knee-jerk reactions these days as the term "drone."
Unmanned surveillance and destruction vehicles set off the alarms of privacy advocates and big-government conspirators alike, and the American use of drones in assassination strikes is arguably the most contentious -- and important -- due process/use of force argument of our time. The 2000s had waterboarding; this is the Predator Decade.
Here in the Bay Area, the Alameda County sheriff's department set off a firestorm when it applied for a federal grant to buy a surveillance drone. That effort was tabled after an outcry, but meanwhile, another Bay Area agency has quietly been approved to acquire a drone.
Nationally, the CIA has of course been using drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, without oversight from a court or other legal entity, for most of the last decade. The CIA's new director, John Brennan, is seeking to transfer control of drone strikes from the CIA to the military -- which is thought to give more credence to the rule of law and transparency than the nation's spy agency. But there's not likely to be any impending end to the controversy over the use of the devices.
Of course, no Bay Area law enforcement agency is trying to buy a Predator (the model armed with cruise missiles that's taken out American civilians overseas). The drone soon to fly over Bay Area skies is a QuadRotor QR425s, which at first glance appears not unlike a toy helicopter, albeit with four rotors. And this drone is not for use by law enforcement, at least not directly; it's the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services' drone, the Oakland Tribune reported. Under the purview of the Sheriff's Department, the drone would be used to allow first-responders to acquire "real-time actionable information in the field," according to the grant request.
That agency's request for a drone was approved March 14 as part of a whole host of law enforcement and first responders' asks from UASI, which is the regional manager of a pool of funds from the Department of Homeland Security.
However, it's not clear when, if ever, the drone will take to the skies. A spokeswoman for the county said late Monday that the request for $70,000 to buy the drone, while approved, will not move forward.
Opposition to domestic drones is perhaps understandable given the impact -- no pun intended -- they've had overseas. But it's still a bit flawed. Police departments will continue to conduct aerial surveillance of all kinds, including via manned helicopter, which is still more intrusive than any remote-controlled device.