Berkeley Public Calls for a No-Drone Zone: City Council Dithers

May 8th, 2014 - by admin

Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet – 2014-05-08 02:18:33

(May 1, 2014) — It was supposed to be a night to “Ground the Drones” but, as Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner Bob Meola put it, “it was more like the movie, Groundhog Day” — an experience of being trapped in a maddening rerun of past events and unable to move forward.

It was back on December 18, 2012, that the Berkeley City Council was first presented with a resolution to proclaim Berkeley a “No Drone Zone.” At the time, the Berkeley City Council asked the City’s Peace and Justice Commission (PJC) and Police Review Commission (PRC) to gather more information and to report back to council “for further consideration of the issues” at a Council Workshop on Drones.

In May 2013, the two commissions hosted a crowded three-hour Town Hall meeting to gather public input on a proposed citywide ban of unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a. drones. [See “Drones or No Drones?” Berkeley Daily Planet]

Representatives from prominent civil rights and electronic privacy organizations were joined by scores of citizens who raised concerns about the documented risks drones pose to both public safety and personal privacy.

Based on these hearings—and months of research—the PJC and PRC produced two parallel 20-page and 19-page reports—both backed up with no less than 57 detailed footnotes. The two reports proposed similar but differing resolutions. (You can read the PJC resolution here and the PRC resolution here. The two resolutions differ in Section II, A through F.)

On April 29, in advance of the City’s regular Tuesday Council meeting, the Mayor Tom Bates and a half-dozen councilmembers convened a special workshop to consider the commissions’ joint-report and a resulting “No Drone Zone” resolution.

The commission’s findings were underscored by the expert testimony of a bevy of civil rights lawyers. But, at the end of the workshop, instead of acting on the extensive information that had been gathered, the council majority elected not to act.

Concilmember Max Anderson called the workshop “useful” but suggested “the council would be better served by a real concerted effort to bring experts together and really talk about all the dimensions of the possible use of these things and maybe we’ll get a fuller, more fresh, fleshed out view of what our civic responsibilities are.”

Meola, the other commissioners, expert witnesses on hand and members of the public were stunned. Hadn’t that been exactly what they had been devoting their energies to for the past two years and the past 90 minutes?

As a dejected Meola observed, “It felt like starting over and repeating where the issues were left in December 2012.”

Drones Redux: The Workshop Assesses the Risks
In his opening statement to the Council, Peace and Justice Commissioner Bob Meola declared: “We believe the recommendations to adopt the resolution and proclamation declaring Berkeley to be free from drones and [to] secure these aims is well-researched, well-thought [and] addresses the situations we were tasked to examine,”

Meola informed the Council that, since the PJC’s original recommendation in 2012, eight US cities — including Charlottesville, Virginia; Syracuse, New York; Northampton, Massachusetts; St. Boniface, Minnesota; Evanston, Illinois; Iowa City, Iowa; and Lincoln, Nebraska; — had enacted “no drone” ordinances. Seattle, Washington ordered its police department to return its two drones to their manufacturer. (You can read all the resolutions online at:

“Now is the time for Berkeley to form its own policy on drones,” Meola said.

In addition to concerns about “the moral and political consequences of drones,” Meola pointed to a number of well-documented safety issues:

• Drones are known to go off course, disappear and crash into other objects.

• They can be easily hacked and manipulated off course and used in ways not intended by their operators.

• Even in the best conditions, drones pose significant risk to safety.

• More drones in the skies over US cities would mean more drone accidents.

• Drones are, in the words of Business Week, “the least safe class of aircraft in operation.”

Michael Sherman followed with a statement on behalf of the PRC. Dismissing a comment from a local TV station that described the drone ban as “a made-up crisis,” he noted that the response to the 9/11 attacks has prompted a “massive erosion and invasion of political and civil liberties, of which drones are but one manifestation.

NSA spying, the mass surveillance of the FBI, Homeland Security’s involvement in the nationwide Occupation movement, CIA spying on senators, the dragnet surveillance of US citizens, are but a few examples.

“There should be no drones before rules and regulations are in place [to safeguard] civil liberties,” he concluded. Simply put, “the laws on privacy have not kept up with the technology.”

Jack Hamm, Vice Chair of the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, reported that the DFSC had voted 6-to-1 that drones “could and should be used — in appropriate circumstances.” He did not acknowledge or address the concerns raised by his fellow commissioners.

Instead, he proposed that, in addition to fighting fires and chasing felons, drones could somehow be used “to protect the privacy and civil rights of citizens in Berkeley.” The DFSC also insisted that the Police and Fire Departments should have sole control over the use of drones. Any other uses would need to be approved by the City Manager on a case-by-case basis.

Nadia Kayyali, an activist with Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautioned that the DFSC’s position was “not sufficiently detailed to cover the degree of concerns, the Fourth Amendment issues that arise” with the use of drones.

The Public Speaks
The 90-minutes workshop attracted a wide range of drone critics —including representatives from the ACLU, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Environmentalists Against War and Cop Watch—followed by more than a dozen anti-drone pleas from Berkeley citizens. A small contingent of UC engineering students spoke in defense of drones.

Tessa D’Arcangelew, an ACLU representative, called drones “a major threat to our privacy” and cited several areas of concern.

“The first is cost. By dramatically reducing the cost to acquiring information, technology also removes the natural barrier to abuse. Tailing a suspect 24/7 through conventional means requires a huge amount of resources but drones offer extended surveillance of, not one, but possibly thousands of people. Therefore, mass surveillance can be conducted based on mere idle curiosity.

“Drones are small, hovering platforms. They can explore hidden spaces or peer into windows. They can be equipped with high-powered night-vision cameras and “see-through” imaging [that] can monitor people through walls and inside of a building through distributed video. Drones, like a swarm of insects, can scoop up information to provide comprehensive surveillance and then video analytics can look at all the information … to recognize and track specific people, events and objects…. We need legislation that anticipates the inevitable evolution in the technology that will happen.”

Because drones pose “great civil liberty concerns,” the ACLU’s position is that drones “need to be highly regulated.”

“We urge you to take the important step of listening to your community and what the Peace and Justice Commission and Police Review Commission say,” D’Arcangelew concluded. “They have come forward with thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-researched proposals.”

Surveillance Drones as ‘Ghetto Birds’
A woman with Alameda County Against Drones declared the organization’s opposition to “corporate drones in our skies. It is a vehicle of repression against individuals, and political movements…. Helicopters now hover over low-income neighborhoods-of-color so routinely they are sometimes referred to as ‘ghetto birds.’ We are increasingly seeing local law enforcement use Homeland Security grants to buy new high-tech toys, which increase militarization of law enforcement without making anyone safer. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department brought an armored carrier to a political demonstration in Oakland only to show it off and intimidate political protesters.”

George Lipmann, Vice Chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, noted that “the amount of information gathered through the use of drones. . . is closer to an invasive body search or a search of your home than it is to a passive eye-in-the-sky helicopter, simply because the technology is so advanced.”

Lippman expressed concern that “drones by any agencies that are under contract with the City [could channel] data flows into the intelligence network of the city government and … the vast and expansive intelligence network of this country, which should scare all of us.”

Jeremy Gillula, one of two drone opponents from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, began with a confession. “Prior to joining EFF,” he said. “I was a doctoral student at robotics at Stanford and UC-Berkeley. My dissertation was on algorithms to guarantee drones would operate safely. As such, I think I have a unique perspective on drones…. I agree with my colleagues and many others that their unchecked use by the government can pose to civil liberties.”

However, Gillula added, he believes drones could be used for the public good, for creative and artistic purposes, offering “potential benefits [for] private citizens when properly regulated and safely regulated.”

In public hands, drones could even allow more effective “independent police monitoring” by citizens watchdog groups, he observed. “It’s a lot harder for a police officer who doesn’t want to be filmed to snatch a drone out of the sky than it is for him to snatch a cell phone camera out of someone’s hands.”

Responding to the issue of private drone use by civilian hobbyists, Michael Sherman emphasized that the PRC’s resolution “did not take a stand on the personal use of drones. . . for the simple reason we thought that was beyond our review.”

“Although the PRC copied the PJC WHEREASES,” Meola later explained to the Planet, “their RESOLVED clause is very different. The PJC did address use by civilian hobbyists and also addressed private use of drones. Meola emphasized that this was a key difference that he had fought for.

[See the PJC’s recommendations at the end of this article.]

Drones in Private Hands: Hobby or a Horror?
T/he handling of the private use of drones was a sticking point between the two resolutions. The FAA, surprisingly, has taken a position on commercial drones—they were banned. The FAA actually fined a photographer $10,000 for using a drone to film a commercial on the University of Virginia campus. But on March 6, a federal judge dismissed the charge, ruling that there was, in fact, no actual law banning the use of commercial drones.

That ruling has turned the airspace into a “land-rush opportunity” for the burgeoning commercial drone industry. As Politico reported, the ruling “appears to make it legal for drones to fly at the low altitude as part of a business — whether that’s delivering beer, photographing a baseball game or spraying crops.” In other words, “the sky’s the limit.”

Drones, Angry Birds and Elephants
Gar Smith*, representing Environmentalists Against War, addressed the council at the invitation of the Peace and Justice Commission and offered “eight additional reasons to ban drones.” The list included the latest drone crashes inside the US and a new and, as yet, little-known environmental problem — a rash of deadly drone encounters with angry birds.

[See videos of drone/bird clashes below.]

Three UC Berkeley grad students spoke in defense of drones. “Where would we be if we had prohibited cars or banned cell phones because Internet connections could potentially breach people’s privacy,” one student asked, “Clearly those would have been unwise and unfortunate choices.”

Another student warned that a drone ban would destroy careers and commerce. “Banning drone technology in Berkeley would constrain our research and would limit the opportunities for new research in entrepreneurial directions. It would also make UC-Berkeley less attractive to world-class researchers who work in this area and give an advantage to our competitors, including both MIT and Stanford, who have thriving UAV programs.”

The only other drone defender was an autopilot designer who praised the utility of drones for land and resource management as well as for search and rescue missions. Thanks to drones, he said, poaching of elephants in Kenya has now been cut by 95%. [Note: The Kenyan government has not yet introduced its drone program and there appears to be no support for the claim that drones have cut elephant poaching by 95% anywhere in Africa. To the contrary, since the 1980s, the poaching of Liberia’s elephants has reduced their population by 95%.]

The Council Responds
Reflecting on the testimony from the UC Berkeley students, Councilmember Max Anderson remarked: “Every technology starts out with very benevolent beginnings, usually in a lab someplace with eager and rigorous scientific investigation and capturing the minds of young inventors and so forth [but], once you open the door to this without a regulatory foundation, the technology drives everything and not the ethics, not the applications of these things.

“I fully understand graduate students working on robotics and other kinds of scientific endeavors may have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads — or IPOs and stock splits coming their way — but there is a larger context in which all these things happen.

“We’ve seen the misuse of technology. And once the door is open and you don’t have a real regulatory and oversight control on it, the technology drives the politics and the economics of it. And that’s a bad situation for a society to be in, having lost control of the ethical direction that we move in.”

At the end of the public comments, the council majority appeared unmoved. No one expressed any interest in joining the growing number of US cities that have already acted to prevent drones from filling their skies — especially if these sophisticated surveillance devices were to be placed in the hands of the Police Department.

One councilmember pointed out that a proposal to restrict the personal use of drones to certain public places and immediately above someone’s personal property, had a fatal flaw. With current camera technology, a drone hovering 400 feet above an individual’s backyard would be able to cast a surveillance net over an entire neighborhood.

“I don’t think anybody on the council wants a weaponized drone over the City of Berkeley,” Gordon Wozniak stated. On the other hand, he said: “I see lots of uses for drones in public spaces—like detecting wildfires.” Comparing drones to cell phones, Wozniak seconded the proposal that drones could be used to document “violations of proper [police] procedures or violations of [citizens’] civil liberties. We should probably encourage that, not ban it.”

Wozniak then offered a “serendipitous” example from the Franco-Prussian war during which, the besieged citizens of Paris were able to restore their mail service through the use of hot air balloons and carrier pigeons.

Despite the risk of that local skies might soon be filled with hundreds of whining, whirring spy-drones (devices that could eventually be equipped with concussion grenades, tasers and teargas), Wozniak insisted that all new technology was to be welcomed because, we never know what wonderful new uses may result. “We don’t know what the technology can do. It has potential for maybe some use we don’t want but it has potential for some uses we can’t imagine right now. It is like banning hot air balloons. It wouldn’t make any sense.”

After listening to the public’s critiques, Wozniak dismissed these concerns as moot, arguing that, since “no city department has asked for a drone, a ban is not appropriate at this point.”

The mayor agreed that the resolution was unnecessary since the BPD “has no plans to purchase drones.” Therefore, the only concern would be privacy issues arising from the public’s use of drones.

“[T]he main concern I have is the civil liberties issue, the privacy issue,” he continued. “I don’t know how you deal with that, given the beliefs of the private sector…. I don’t think you can possibly regulate effectively the use of this technology to say you can’t spy on people because they have the technology to go up in the air and they probably have the technology to do this spying…. So it is kind of like sticking our head in the mud to say we can’t use this technology.” On the other hand, Bates reflected, “There is no way to stop it and control it once it gets up in the air.”

The mayor’s reassurance about the police department’s lack of interest in purchasing drones was immediately undercut by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli who countered that he could see drones having “real uses by the police and fire departments.”

“The real question is can we develop protocols and guidelines that protect the civil liberties of the citizens of Berkeley? And if we can’t do that, then I don’t think we can go forward,” Capitelli said.

The mayor summed up the City’s response thusly: “We won’t take any action. It will be incumbent on us to come back with something in the regular Council meeting.”

While the public’s Input was characterized by well-documented concerns and deeply felt personal fears, the response of the city’s leaders struck many as a disappointing mixture of timidity and technophilia.

Instead of proceeding with the same historic initiative that once lead Berkeley to declare itself a “Nuclear Free Zone,” the council decided to do nothing more than dither. The issue was too complex, it was argued. No decisions could be made without more information. Much more information.

Meanwhile, while Berkeley’s leadership debates, delays and dithers, the FAA’s 2015 deadline for approving the release of tens of thousands of unregulated drone aircraft into America’s urban airspace continues to draw ever closer.

” I never wanted a two-year moratorium on drones, like some other cities now have,” Meola told The Planet. “But that would be better than nothing. As long as Berkeley does nothing, the drones will fill the air and we will have to regulate them after they are here. We should regulate them now, before they are everywhere in Berkeley. Berkeley should do SOMETHING now.”

[*Full disclosure: The author is a co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and was a participant in the event reported above.]

Excerpt from the PJC ‘No Drone Zone’ Resolution
Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission


A. The City of Berkeley shall be known as a “drone-free zone” and a “No Drone Zone” and;

1. No agency or department of Berkeley shall purchase, lease, borrow, or otherwise acquire or utilize a drone;

2. No officer or employee of Berkeley shall make any use of drones or the data they have collected in the discharge of their duties;

3. No officer or employee of Berkeley shall request or accept, handle, analyze, or transmit any kind of data gathered by third parties using drones, including private parties, security contractors, or other government agencies;

4. Under no circumstances shall any officer or employee of Berkeley use drones to monitor or observe any person;

5. Under no circumstances shall any personally identifying information captured by drones, whether by agencies of Berkeley or otherwise, including images of identifiable individuals, be retained or shared with any agency or fusion center.

6. Failure of a Berkeley officer or employee to comply with the provisions of this chapter shall constitute malfeasance in office.

7. Drones are hereby banned from airspace over the City of Berkeley, including drones in transit. Under this Ordinance, flying a drone within the airspace of the City of Berkeley shall be considered a misdemeanor.

Exemptions will be made for hobbyists to continue to fly remote controlled model aircraft in specified areas, away from dwellings and the urban cityscape of people and buildings as long as those devices are not equipped with any kind of camera or audio surveillance equipment.B. No information gained through drone surveillance shall be used to support a declaration of probable cause or otherwise justify or further a criminal investigation.

C. Evidence obtained or collected in violation of this ordinance is not admissible as evidence in a criminal prosecution in any court of law [in this county] including use during trial, at sentencing, before a grand jury, as rebuttal evidence, or during administrative hearings in any court of law in the state.

D. No officer or employee of Berkeley shall present such evidence in any court of law, including state or federal courts, for use during trial, at sentencing, before a grand jury, as rebuttal evidence, or during administrative hearings.

E. All information or records of information collected through the use of drones in violation of this Ordinance shall be destroyed as soon as practicable, and within no case later than twenty-four (24) hours after capture or receipt.

Eight More Reasons to Ground Drones
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

First I would like to commend the Police Review Board and the Peace and Justice Commission for their comprehensive report.

Now for some recent news.

(1) In late January, US Customs and Border Protection grounded its entire fleet of drones after an unexplained mechanical problem forced operators to crash the aircraft into the Pacific. Unfortunately, the “ocean-option” is not always available. In 2006, a Customs drone weighing 6,400 pounds crashed into a hillside near Nogales, Arizona.

(2) The Air Line Pilots Association, the country’s largest pilots’ union, recently criticized the FAA’s rush to introduce drones in to the community airspace. (BusinessWeek has identified drones as the world’s “most accident-prone” class of aircraft.)

(3) In March, a six-rotor CUPID drone equipped with a taser was used to demonstrate how its owners could zap “suspicious” persons with 80,000-volts, knocking them out “until police arrive.” A pepper spray option is also in the works.

(4) Working both sides of the market, the CUPID developers are building drones with electromagnetic weapons that can disable other drones, forcing them to tumble out of the sky.

(5) Drones can invite “defensive retaliation.” In Montana, Matt Rosendale, a candidate for U.S. Congress, has released a TV spot that shows him knocking a drone out of the sky with a shotgun.

(6) Even when drones are not camera-equipped, there can be mayhem. A YouTube compilation shows an anarchist group unleashing hobby drones on golf courses, in bullfighting arenas, at skate parks, inside subway stations, and even during London’s Changing of the Guards.

(7) In addition to the privacy issues raised by drones equipped with cameras and other sensors, the proliferation of commercial drones would pose safety and quality-of-life concerns. Amazon is pushing for drone-delivery of packages, some of which could weigh 5 pounds or more. There would be no FAA oversight of these commercial drones crisscrossing overhead bearing book orders, hot pizzas, prescription meds, bottles of bleach and six-packs of Anchor Steam.

Finally, here’s another previously unaddressed problem: drone/bird collisions. (Note: The video shows how easily drones can spy on neighbors and entire neighborhoods — or threaten highways and rail lines. The attacking swarm of birds shows up near the 3-minute mark).

YouTube is filled with scores of bird/drone confrontations.

Sometimes the birds knock the drones from the sky.

Sometimes the drones kill the birds.

Sometimes the drones just spook the birds.

Here are some of the comments accompanying the videos:
I was flying my Hexa Sentinel drone and … I found out just how territorial birds can be.”

“I must have annoyed a group of birds, they teamed up & started dive bombing … from all directions…, I lost control” and crashed.

“This crow … almost crashed my heli and killed itself. I just happened to do a flip and show[ed] my ‘talons’ when it attacked.”

In conclusion: No Drones. Do it for public safety, do it for personal privacy, do it for the birds.

Other Drone Videos
Footage from Drone Shot Down by Egyptian Police in Taksim Square, June 11, 2013.

Drones Shot Down Over Texas. May 23, 2012

Pigeon Hunters Shoot Down Drone Belonging to Animal Rights Group. November 19, 2012

Hunters Shoot down Multirotor. December 16, 2012.

The 1st FAA Prosecution of a Civilian Drone UAV. October 17, 2013

When Octocopters go bad ! It this the sound you want to hear in our future skies? June 8, 2011

Leverett Becomes Sixth City
To Pass Anti-Drone Resolution

The Recorder

A Town meeting in Leverett will consider a resolution calling on the federal government to end the use of drones for assassinations on foreign soil and to enact regulations on the use of the unmanned aircraft in the United States.

It would ask US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and US Rep. James McGovern to bring forward legislation “to end the practice of extrajudicial killing by armed drone aircraft” by withholding money for that purpose and “to make restitution for injuries, fatalities and environmental damage resulting from the actions of the United States government, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, allied nations and/or its private contractors.”

The second aspect of the article is to ensure that drones stay at least 500 feet above private properties unless otherwise authorized by town officials.
According to Beth Adams, a Leverett resident and co-author of the measure, the resolution was inspired by one passed in Northampton last summer. “We think it is important for the public to be informed about the rule-making going on without any public input,” Adams said.

May 3 Town Meeting

The resolution in Leverett, which was authored by a group called Pioneer Valley Citizens Concerned About Drones, received 19 signatures,” nearly double the number required to get an article on the warrant. It will be voted on close to the end of the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. May 3, according to Town Clerk Lisa Stratford.

Adams said, “We think people need to be educated about this topic, and we hope other communities will follow our example and pass resolutions that will protect their communities from potential violations before the (Federal Aviation Administration) changes the rules.”

Amherst, Leverett Ponder
Resolutions for Drone Restrictions

Associated Press & Boston Globe

(April 21, 2014) — Town meetings in Amherst and Leverett will consider resolutions calling on the federal government to end the use of drones for assassinations and regulate the unmanned aircraft locally. The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that Amherst Select Board member James Wald said he isn’t comfortable with the town having a foreign policy when the federal government doesn’t have one.

Frank Gatti, a Town Meeting member and lead petitioner in Amherst, said the drone resolution would express concern about the US government killing people in Pakistan and Yemen. It would ask US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and Representative James McGovern to propose legislation to stop funding drone killings. A second restriction would keep drones at least 500 feet above private property unless otherwise authorized by town officials.”

Amherest and Leverett
Consider Drone Resolutions

Matt Caron / WWLP News & Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. (April 20, 2014) — Town Meetings in Amherst and Leverett will consider resolutions calling on the federal government to end the use of drones for assassinations and regulate the unmanned aircraft locally.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reports that Amherst Select Board member James Wald says he’s not comfortable with the town having a foreign policy when the federal government doesn’t have one.

Frank Gatti, a Town Meeting member and lead petitioner in Amherst, said the drone resolution would express concern about the US government killing people in Pakistan and Yemen. It would ask US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and US Rep. James McGovern to propose legislation to stop funding drone killings.

A second restriction would keep drones at least 500 feet above private property unless otherwise authorized by town officials.

Here are the other five”