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By Miriam Raftery

Back Country Voices, a citizens group in East County, held a forum on November 11 regarding a proposal to test drones--unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs-- over backcountry areas in San Diego and East County.   Concerned citizens packed into Julian’s library to learn more about the implications of drone testing in our region.

The first speaker was John Raifsnider, a local resident.  “San Diego Military Advisory Council, the Economic Development [Council] and then the Chamber…What does that mean? “ he asked. “Money and military. What does that mix create? We want to know.”

Raifsnider voiced concerned that county Supervisors and all five Congressional representatives have sent letters in support of this plan without input from rural residents.  Supervisor Ron Roberts has said he backs the plan to bring more manufacturing jobs to our region. Supervisor Dianne Jacob envisions use of drones to spot brush fires.

After the meeting, Raifsnider posted some intriguing questions. "One direction we have not developed is the question of possible constructive uses of this technology we all could embrace. One example: Our infrastructure is crumbling. Are there advances in robotic technology which will assist in its repair, just one case of inviting a wiser and more benevolent use of public funds and resources?  What about the healing fields, education fields, gifts to science and the arts?" He added, "Could we facilitate our moving further from the prospect of a 'police state-surveillance state' and more in the direction of a more creative state, a compassionate state for the world, which by the will of its people becomes freer to act on its social conscience, exceeding the tired old model of endless economic growth?

Residents' concerns over drones focused on safety and privacy.  They want to know where drones will take off and land, and what exactly they will be testing –surveillance, infrared technology, or even weaponry.

They also voiced concern over impacts on the rural lifestyle for those who came to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. “We come because it’s pristine, because it’s open, because we feel alone, we like to feel the solitude. So the whole notion that there may be eyes upon us, eyes in the sky.  Is that realistic? Is that true? Could that be happening, the answer is yes,” Raifsnider said.

Dave Patterson, a Ramona resident with Veterans for Peace, said his group got involved over concerns over “alarm reports” that the majority of those killed overseas by drones were civilians, including many children. He is also concerned about drones being deployed on the international border.

He brought a scale model of a weaponized Predator drone, along with a video screen where guests could view themselves in the crosshairs.  A large sign asked, “10,000 drones surveilling  America – is that okay?”

Supporters of drones argue that the drone industry will bring many jobs to San Diego, a drone manufacturing headquarter, as well as jobs for those who remotely operate the drones.   Veterans for Peace has demonstrated outside General Atomics in Poway, where Predator drones are made. 

Besides  military applications, drones can be used domestically. Some applications have support even from the harshest critics, such as use in search and rescue after a disaster. But other uses are more troubling. For example, the technology exists for drones to fly silently, unseen at night, taking high resolution surveillance video of our region with the ability to  catch speeders or show detailed images of residents’ activities. 

Infrared technology can even reveal images inside homes; one drone pilot  recently stated in an article that he observed people having sex inside residences in Afghanistan and even listening in remotely. 

Some raised concerns over use of drones by law enforcement without warrants, potentially violating the 4th and 5th Amendments. 

Patterson said he is not opposed to the technology, but that “the way the technology is being used is alarming.”

A film produced by the Al Jazeera news network raised concerns over killing via drone as trivializing the actions to be similar to video games.   The military has indicated the drones are effective and can potentially save lives of U.S. military personnel. But civil liberties and the future of war are serious questions raised. 

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. over “summary executions” carried out with drones. The ACLU contends this violates international law and notes that the U.S. would no doubt object if other nations were to claim the right to kill people inside U.S. boundaries.

The film also revealed research with nanodrones,  small robots that swarm like insects, crawling or flying into buildings.  These miniature nanodrones are not even included among the numbers of drones that could fly over our skies in the future. 

Congress has mandated the FAA to open skies to drones by 2015. The FAA has said that could mean as many as 30,000 drones in the sky, Patterson said.  He predicted that constitutional rights will “go up in a big cloud of drones” when that occurs. He wants to see rules and oversight, particularly regulation how law enforcement may use drones.  Patterson indicated some police departments have already obtained weaponized drones – purchased with our tax dollars. 

Next to speak was Matthew Kellegrew  a lawyer with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee out of the San Francisco area. The organization is suing the government  over domestic use of drones here in the U.S.

The groups seeks to find local issues and use “transpartisan community organizing” to fight back.   He said this is an issue where people on the political right, such as Libertarians, and those on the left find common ground.  “This is a strange moment in history,” he said of the alignments amid growing privacy concerns and both sides feel alienated by their leaders.

He emphasized that those speaking out and demonstrating are making a difference. “The more demonstrations there are, the fewer drone killings abroad. This is a real thing.”

“There’s not a town ordinance you can pass that will stop the NSA from like, reading your emails.  But there are town ordinances you can pass that will stop police departments from getting drones or at least regulate drones. So this is.… one area where local action can have a tremendous impact on the national level.

He views drones as part of a broader erosion of Constitutional rights.  “Drones are a piece of the surveillance state.” The drones collect and disseminate information to state agencies, he noted.

Drones are also being used to reduce illegal immigration, along with biometrics used first against vulnerable populations and people of color.  Drones are very expensive and not very effective at stopping border crossers, he observed.  But the attorney suggests this is a “staging ground” and that ultimately such technology can be used against any citizen.

He also spoke of lobbying by drone manufacturers.  Texas passed an outright ban on drones by law enforcement.  But powerful Boeing and Raytheon lobbyists watered it down.  He said lobbyists distract the argument by  focusing only on privacy concerns such as restricting neighbors from using drones to spy on others, “derailing the entire Constitutional argument.” 

Texas wound up with law enforcement having “free reign to do whatever it wants” with drones while private use of drones was restricted. That’s “pretty much become a model” for how drone regulations have been restricted elsewhere.

San Diego’s Sheriff has obtained at least one quote for purchasing a drone, but declined to disclose details under a public records request, the website Mucrock  reported.

Multi-level of governments complicate the regulation of drones. For instance, the City of Berkeley banned its police department from owning a drone, but cannot prevent the County of Alameda or the federal government from flying drones over Berkeley’s airspace. 

San Diego is one of about 25 regions nationally vying to become a national drone test site, but is considered a leading contender due to drone manufacturers based here, along with our diverse terrain for testing purposes. A decision is due by year’s end.

The Bill of Rights Defense Attorney offered this advice for anti-drone activists. “If there’s gonna be a lot of road blocks,  it’s gonna become total nightmare to fly a drone in San Diego,  that’s going to impact how much funding goes into San Diego.  That’s going to shift the balance in terms of how tractable a location this is for drone deployment….There’s a reason why they’re not doing it in Seattle,” he said, noting that Seattle has plenty of wilderness, but also vocal opposition to drones.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee on Thursday will introduce the “Unplug the NSA” campaign urging states to cut off power and water to entities that violate Americans’ constitutional rights, such as  warrantless wiretapping such as of phone conversations in violation of Constitutional Rights. He suggested that a similar tactic might be used to curtain drone manufacturing. 

Bill Everett, a Julian resident, said drones are currently regulated the same way as model aircraft. He voiced concern over thousands of drones, some just a couple of hundred dollars or less, buzzing over San Diego skies.  “It’s already crowded enough out there,” he said.

“See and avoid’ is still  an important way to avoid collisions and if a problem occurs, to enable a pilot to make a safe emergency landing. 

He also warned that an FAA ruling could trump local ordinances.  He predicted testing would start over the desert with a chase plane and that testing would likely capability for drones to self destruct “so if something gets out of control, they can destroy the aircraft.

He stressed he’s not opposed to the technology, noting that a friend used $700 drones to fly over penguin colonies in the Antarctic to document behavior.  He says some can be purchased for just $79 now.  “If you have 6,000 people in San Diego who own these things” it will be “unlikely they will know that there are regulations on where you can fly these things…They’ll be violating the rules left and right and there will be no way to regulate them.”

With GPS even for “tiny” drones, he envisions drones flying 24 hours a day and archiving data on wherever we go. “This to my mind is the ultimate realization of Big Brother.”

Other concerns include potential for a brush fire to start if a drone crashes and the possibility of a terrorist strapping weapons onto drones for attacks on U.S. soil.

Lisa Elkins, an investigative journalist, is a member of Back Country Voices who has been researching drones.  "Our biggest concerns are safety, regulation, accountability and privacy," she told the UT San Diego in an interview. "It worries us that the (FAA) isn’t ready for this... and that they haven’t given any option to the public to voice its concern.”

Back Country Voices has launched a petition asking elected officials to oppose drone testing over San Diego County.  The group also has a second event coming up December 4 at the Julian Town Hall with a representative from the ACLU as its speaker.  For more information, see the organization’sFacebook page at







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