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SF ushering in new era with drone use by city departments

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An view of Dolores Park as seen from a DJI Phantom 4 drone on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (Lee Kin/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco appears ready to go drone.

After discussing for two years rules dictating how drones can soar in the skies and video record images while simultaneously quelling privacy concerns, The City’s little-known Committee on Information and Technology is set to vote Friday on a drone use policy.

If approved, five city departments will have the authority to use the devices – the Controller’s Office, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Port Commission, Fire Department and Recreation and Park Department.

The vote comes after significant changes were made to the draft policy over the years, including as recently as last week.

For example, a provision that would have allowed Rec and Park to fly drones to monitor large events was deleted altogether. A regulation that would have permitted the Port, SFPUC and Rec and Park to use drones for security purposes like “boundary patrols” of properties and assets was also eliminated.

SEE RELATED: Five SF departments plan to use drones as privacy concerns persist

The drones would be used mostly for disaster response, marketing and inspections of properties. The Fire Department, for example, could use drones for “building fire reconnaissance,” the SFPUC for environmental monitoring of wildlife and reservoirs, the Port for post-disaster inspections and Rec and Park to help park rangers respond to emergencies.

The use of spy technology like license plate readers, facial recognition and drones are alarming to civil liberty groups — concerns include privacy, having a chilling effect on protests and racial justice — but these groups recommend strict rules if they are employed.

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“We continue to be concerned about the impact of drones used by government on the privacy of people of the city,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation’s senior staff attorney Adam Schwartz.

Drones are becoming increasingly popular with local governments across the nation.

“You have enough drones in the sky, the government knows where all the people are all the time,” Schwartz said.

When asked to review San Francisco’s draft drone policy Thursday following the recent changes, Schwartz said, “We are pleased to see that it does not include law enforcement use and security use. We think it could be tightened to more rapidly delete the inevitably collected personal identifiable information. It’s positive there are limits on how they are storing and sharing that information.”

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The policy requires each department to appoint an employee to handle the drone footage. If the drone footage captures “personal identifiable information,” such information must be removed from the raw data footage.

But unprocessed raw data footage could remain in a city department’s possession for up to one year under the policy, which is what concerns Schwartz.

SEE RELATED: San Francisco may deploy drones for variety of uses

All of the department’s deployments of drones must have their flight plans submitted to The City 24 hours before flight, or in the event of emergencies, 48 hours after they are deployed.

Mayor Ed Lee is a supporter of drone use and serves as the only mayor along with other local and state representatives on the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] Drone Advisory Committee to recommend national regulations around drone usage. At a committee meeting Wednesday in Herndon, Virginia, the mayor discussed local oversight of drone use.

“During the last two years, the City has conducted a transparent and thorough public process with relevant agencies, privacy advocates, and the public to craft a comprehensive city-wide policy for the purchase and use of drones,” said Mayor Ed Lee’s spokesperson Ellen Canale in an email. “From day one, our primary focus has been the privacy and safety of the residents, visitors and business of San Francisco and this policy reflects that commitment with protections built in to reduce privacy risks.”

It’s unclear how fast the authorized city departments will actually deploy drones. Currently, the only city department with drones is Rec and Park, which has seven that have been grounded until the policy is adopted. Operators of drones must also comply with state and federal rules, including getting a remote pilot certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is exploring signing a contract with a drone company to provide the service once the policy is in place.

The drone usage will require a review after one year. That could address concerns whether drone usage is adhering strictly to the policy. “We have seen mission creep where it starts out with one purpose and it spreads to others,” Schwartz said.

Once the main policy is approved by the information and technology committee, the five departments would be tasked with creating individual drone policies.

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