by Eileen | 5:34 pm, January 16, 2013 | Comments Off
As part of the on-going Drone Census project, jointly run by MuckRock and EFF, our very own Mesa County has ‘provided’ data on their drone project. By provided, I mean they were petty needle-dicks who tried to ignore fulfilling a CORA request with the ever classy game of ‘we-don’t-do-email-send-a-letter-to-tell-us-what-you-already-told-us’. Everyone does that, which proves not that Mesa County is an outlier but that governments are petty needle-dicks about transparency.
For one thing, maintaining the fiction that open government can only happen on paper allows them to charge eye-watering fees that, if you do the math, work out to several dollars per page and a secretary getting $30 an hour to make copies. Not only do government agencies not pay the copy monkeys that well, someone already drawing a publicly funded salary for a job that requires making copies doesn’t need more money to do exactly what’s in his job description, in the first damn place.
Anyway, back to the Wild West. Having gotten in early as part of a pilot project, the County has FAA approval to use two drones, equipped with thermal imaging capabilities, in the field. Basically, Mesa offered to give up all the data they got to the feds in return for free drones and permission to do much more than most localities get to do. That likely owes to Mesa County largely consisting of an unoccupied lunar landscape and therefore providing great opportunities for practice and beta-testing.
And it’s a big field. Most drone authorizations lay out tightly restricted areas of operation, but Mesa County’s Sheriff is cleared to operate drones anywhere in the County, which means operational use. Oh, joy. The usual restrictions – night flights and populated areas – apply. For now, anyway. We’re also assured there are no plans to weaponize the drones, though specific operational details are held back. On that note, not to make too much fun of Grand Junction and environs, but are these really the people who routinely deal with threats that not only must be liquidated but are also so dangerous that it needs to be done by a flying robot?
That effete pseudo-ban on personal use of a public drone not withstanding, Mesa’s Sheriff doesn’t even have a use policy, though the talking-head-in-resident assures us they are, “currently in the process of drafting a written policy for the use of our unmanned aircraft.” Bully for them. They’ve had cutting edge technology, on some other bum’s dime, with breathtaking surveillance capabilities, since mid-2009. And they are only now getting around to coming up withe rules of use.
Being a pilot project in the new rush to domesticate drones, Mesa County has an opportunity to address legitimate privacy concerns head on. Realistically, any productive privacy protections are more likely to come from the legislature. Law enforcement can’t be relied on to limit itself; for one thing, they deal with guilty S.O.B.’s so often that it takes an outsider to remind the that dragnet surveillance scoops up a lot of innocent people.On top of that, if Mesa County saw the value in having a use policy with consideration of privacy aspects, they’d have done it by now.
If Colorado’s legislature takes up such a matter, they’d have a model. The Florida State Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously to pass a Republican sponsored bill, SB-92, banning the use of drones for spying on citizens and for code enforcement, limiting drone applications to executing warrants and dealing with emergencies – like wildfires and hostage situations, which are real emergencies. There’s also the ‘terrorism investigation’ exception, which is always terrifying given our government’s expansive definitions of terrorism.
But there are also a few provisions that create positive protections for citizens – inadmissibility of drone-gathered material in criminal cases and a right to sue agencies for violations. And there are the usual worries – loose definitions that invite law enforcement to skirt the spirit of the law and the fear that civil liberty advocates will be dismissed by being told they already got a privacy bill passed while the the bill itself is consistently ignored. All of which is hypothetical until the bill becomes law. For now, a seven-member committee likes the idea, an auspicious start but a long way remains.
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