Civil rights groups castigated San Jose city leaders for approving a drone purchase without public debate over privacy concerns. They're now asking the city to reform procedures for acquiring surveillance technology to make the process more transparent.
A letter submitted to the Rules and Open Government Committee, which meets today, was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Asian Law Alliance, Center for Media Justice and Coalition for Justice and Accountability.
“Community members did not have the proper opportunity to voice their concerns about the potential purchase of a drone, and City Council members were not able to vote on the budget request with these concerns in mind,” the letter states. “The City Council should show its commitment to respecting civil liberties and civil rights by bringing this issue back for a robust public debate and a new vote.”
The San Jose Police Department (SJPD) acquired a drone through a Homeland Security grant last year. The purchase was tucked away on a consent calendar and might have continued to avoid public scrutiny had an investigative news site not filed repeated public records requests asking if the city had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in its possession.
Muckrock, working with Vice media, launched a project in 2012 to identify which public agencies own UAVs. Police initially lied to the Muckrock reporter, saying they had no such records, but after repeated requests over several months, they finally issued documentation that showed a drone purchase.
SJPD got its hands on a $7,000 drone for its bomb squad, it finally admitted. The purchase was buried on a Nov. 19, 2013, council agenda with a summary that contained no reference to a drone. Only in a separate memo from SJPD Chief Larry Esquivel is there a reference to the UAV. The small kit-assembled flying robot could also help in hazmat situations, the agency said. (Here’s a link to the site that sells the contraption, the NEO 660 V2, where it’s priced for much less).
Yet the letter from civil rights groups urges police to weigh the risks.
“Drones pose significant threats to privacy and free expression because they can operate surreptitiously, enable warrantless dragnet surveillance, and can be easily misused for discriminatory purposes,” the missive cautions.
Recently, Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco counties each considered and rejected drone purchases after weighing the benefits of the technology against concerns from the public, the letter notes.
“It is especially troubling that the [San Jose] City Council allowed the police department to purchase a drone without public debate in light of San Jose's history of police misconduct and discriminatory treatment of communities of color,” the ACLU writes.
Police acknowledged they should have been more forthcoming about acquiring the drone and said the same about its acquisition of a mine-resistant armored truck.
- San Jose has what is calls a Heritage Tree program, which protects trees of special significance to a neighborhood. A neighborhood association wants the city to nominate an old cedar on Hanchett Avenue and a coast live oak at Theodor Lenzen Park for consideration.
- David Wall wonders if the city has “mastered the black arts of Voodoo to easily and routinely ‘snooker’ council? Or is council, naturally prone to authorizing really dumb ideas from [the Environmental Services Department] as long as the ideas are linked in some way to the Green Vision?"
- A District 1 candidate forum takes place on Oct. 11 at Lynbrook High School. The event is sponsored by D1 Councilman Pete Constant, whose ends his term in December and won’t run for re-election.
- Councilman Ash Kalra wants the city to pass a resolution opposing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established corporate personhood. “Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission case, there has been a growing concern that corporations, special interest groups and lobbyists are leveraging power with the use of campaign donations and other methods of financial influence,” he writes. “All these actions have been labeled as free speech, protected under the first amendment. Under current law, corporations are be recognized at "people", vesting them with all Constitutional rights that are afforded to US citizens of natural, human birth and existence. Yet, corporations benefit from special advantages not afforded to human beings, such as limited liability, perpetual life, and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets.”
WHAT: Rules and Open Government Committee meets
WHEN: 2pm Wednesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260