Five SF departments plan to use drones as privacy concerns persist

A handful of city departments plan to start using drones in San Francisco to respond to emergencies, assist in investigations and improve security.

The City has been discussing a drone-use policy for more than a year as concerns about privacy remain under debate across the country. For the first time, The City’s draft policy, which is under discussion by a technology committee, has identified five departments that would initially have the authority to use the devices.

The five departments are the City Controller’s Office, Fire Department, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Port, and the Recreation and Park Department.

City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who oversees the Committee on Information Technology, which is working on the policy, said the devices would be in use for a one-year pilot.

“We tried to get it limited to certain departments for very specific uses,” Kelly told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday. “Police, they are not interested right now.”

Kelly said the committee is consulting with privacy advocates as it finalizes the policy.
“We’re very much trying to respect people’s privacy,” Kelly said. “We are not going to do any data-sharing amongst departments.”

The Fire Department would utilize drones in emergencies, such as aiding in rescues at Ocean Beach. The Port’s uses include security for “properties and assets” and marketing videos and still photographs. Rec and Park would use drones for inspections of property and landscapes. The City Controller’s Office would use drones to examine areas after emergencies or disasters to estimate cost recovery and to “determine whether participants in city programs comply with program requirements.”

The committee discussed the draft policy last week and will discuss it again during a meeting in October. A year ago, the same committee had discussed a more general policy.

Civil rights groups have long expressed concerns over drones.

Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney for civil liberties nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the group is “very concerned any time government wants to acquire a drone because of the tremendous power it has to spy on people.”

Schwartz said that the best way to protect people’s privacy is to ensure elected bodies vote to purchase drones and that they are being used only for the stated purpose.

Kelly said the committee is examining oversight measures like auditing and monitoring to hold departments accountable to the policy.

“This is all very new to us,” she said.

The draft policy states: “The City is prohibited from using drone data to collect information on individuals or private property, except for purposes as strictly defined as an authorized purpose.”

The SFPUC would use drones “in extremely hard-to-reach areas outside of the City,” said SFPUC spokesman Charles Sheehan.

“We would use them to inspect transmission lines on top of mountains, reservoirs in remote watersheds and pipelines in remote areas. We could also use them for biological monitoring like the cataloging of non-native, invasive plants,” Sheehan said. “These areas are outside of the City; they’re not near homes and they’re not near businesses.”

The policy says the SFPUC could also use drones to investigate “illegal and hazardous activities on protected watershed lands.”

Flight plans and the kind of data to be collected must be submitted 48 hours prior to drone usage or, in cases of investigations or emergencies, within 48 hours afterwards, the draft policy states.

“Departments are advised not to maintain archives of any images, video, or other drone data,” the draft policy states. “To the extent departments do retain drone-collected data, such data may be accessed by the operating department only. The City may not exchange drone-collected data between departments or disclose such data to the public except for exigent public safety needs or as required by law.”

San Francisco’s foray into drone usage could have far-ranging implications.

Mayor Ed Lee weighed in on the issue after being invited to participate last week on the recently formed Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee.

“As the only mayor on the committee, I will also urge close consideration of the potential adverse impacts that this emerging technology could have on cities, including on personal privacy and on members of our valued workforce,” Lee said in a statement Friday.

Kelly said once approved by the committee, city departments would use the drone-use policy as guidelines to develop more specific drone policies for their respective departments.

“From an emergency standpoint, they make all the sense in the world,” Kelly said.

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