San Diego: City of Drones

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(Fictional representation of Ricardo Dominguez warning San Diego of the impending drones)

1/24/12: Update – the author originally confused the SDPD and the SD Sheriff’s dept, and the article has been edited to reflect the correct information. 

By Josh Marxen

Last quarter, UCSD art professor Ricardo Dominguez decided to pull a prank on the university. This is routine business for a professor whose past art projects include an iPhone app designed to help illegal immigrants avoid border patrol agents, and using a DDoS attack to crash the UC Office of the President’s website and modifying error messages to display snappy quips about the privatization of the UC’s.

It is safe to say that Dominguez has outdone himself this time. Last October, Dominguez was appointed as the Principle Investigator for the UC Center for Drone Policy and Ethics (UCCDPE). Then, in December, the UCCDPE announced on its blog that it would be holding a “town hall to discuss [the recent Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) malfunctioning and crash on UCSD’s campus] with students, faculty and staff”. The statement asserted that “the origin and manufacturer of the crashed drone [was] unclear” at the time, and promised to reveal those details at the town hall. I did not learn until after attending the town hall that the supposed crash was a hoax. In fact, according to statements made by Dominguez to the media, the UCCDPE is not even officially associated with the University of California. Though it appears that followers of Dominguez’s “Drones at Home” art project may have been aware that the crash was fake, many on our campus (including myself) were clueless.

In hindsight, a number of the narrative’s elements hinted that the scenario was a hoax. For instance, presenters at the town hall meeting did not reveal details about the owner of the crashed drone as promised in the announcement. But what makes the hoax remarkable are the realities that make it believable despite these hints – the prominent presence of private contractors in San Diego that take up defense contracts for the government; the looming advent of the San Diego Sheriff Department’s integration of drones into their activities; our own University’s possible involvement in the development of drone technology; and the question incumbent on these factors: “whose drone crashed on our campus?”

Could the drone have belonged to a private corporation in the San Diego area? Certainly. One of San Diego’s leading military contractors, especially with respect to unmanned aerial systems, is General Atomics, which has an entire company division devoted to drone/UAV research – General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. General Atomics’ headquarters are located less than a mile north of our own campus, although it is unlikely that this site hosts test flights that might have resulted in the accidental crash landing, because their Aeronautical Systems division is actually located in Poway.

Nevertheless, the proximity of campus to GA’s headquarters not only makes it a possible owner of the fake drone, but also reminds us of how entrenched drone research and manufacture is in the San Diego economy.

According to a recent National University Institute System for Policy Research report, estimates indicate that government expenses made directly towards UAV research and manufacture netted contractors in the San Diego region about $1.3 billion in 2011, and such industry directly employs 2000 workers. The numbers jump to about $2.3 billion and 7000 workers when indirect expenses are included. A majority of these expenses (67%) go to Northrop Grumman, followed by General Atomics (32%).

Getting back to the central question – if not General Atomics, could the drone have belonged to the San Diego Sheriff Department? Again, it’s possible. On July 12, 2012, Shawn Musgrave of muckrock.com filed a Sunshine Amendment Request – the Californian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request – asking the San Diego Sheriff’s Department to disclose documents and contracts related to the department’s possible purchase of UAV’s, intended use of any UAV’s bought, and policies governing the department’s use of drones. Last September, the department denied that it had purchased drones or had any intention to purchase them in the future. Ultimately, Musgrave’s request for the documents was denied – not on the grounds that Sheriff’s Department had no such documents as were requested; rather, the Department found that “there is very little public benefit in the release of such records”. Despite the department’s privacy, Musgrave was able to find a sales quote from Datron World Communications confirming that the department had tested a Datron drone product in June of 2011. Whether or not any more activity has taken place since then will remain a mystery as long as the department withholds requested information.

Besides its shady behavior, there is good reason to be suspicious of the Sheriff’s Department’s honesty. Maybe it has bought drones, maybe it hasn’t – but if it has, it isn’t the first. Muckrock.com, which has collaborated with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to conduct the 2012 Drone Census over the last 6 months, has uncovered much about the current and prospective use of drone technologies by various organizations across the US. One such discovery, which resulted from an EFF FOIA lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration, was that the Seattle Police Department had purchased two drones without the knowledge of Seattle’s city council or residents. Closer to home, the Drone Census revealed that the Alameda County, CA police department had intentions to purchase drones in the future. The SD Sheriff’s Department, the Seattle department, and the Alameda County department all claim that they would limit drone use to emergency situations such as “crime scene photography, missing person searches, and barricaded person scenarios”. However, there is no reason to believe that police departments would not use drones for the same operations that it uses helicopters for currently, including unconstitutional scans for marijuana growing operations. Drones are much cheaper to operate than helicopters, can remain airborne for longer periods of time, and could easily be made semi-autonomous in the near future so that one pilot can control several drones simultaneously.

Finally, we come to our own university. Could it be that a UCSD researcher was conducting an experiment that went out of control and led to the “crash”? It is difficult to know for certain, but UCSD might be the most likely candidate. Muckrock.com is currently engaged in requesting documents from UCSD pertaining to research conducted by relevant departments. While the University acknowledged last October that it may possess such responsive documents, “records documenting [the University’s] research activities are covered in the California Public Records Act (CPRA) and may be exempt from disclosure”. At that time, University spokesmen estimated that the request would be fulfilled by November 1st of last year. However, the University has yet to reveal documents, confirm that it has no responsive documents, or declare the documents exempt from disclosure. The latest follow-up request from muckrock.com was sent on January 15th.

There is little reason to doubt that some drone-related research is occurring on campus. Representatives of UCSD even admitted that the Scripps Institute of Oceanography uses drones for the purpose of performing atmospheric content analysis. And I know I’m not the only one who saw a group of students piloting a small hex-rotor outside of the Engineering Building on Warren Mall last quarter.

Ultimately, UAVs are just another technology – morally neutral, not inherently evil. But it is rare that a new technology is so widely applicable to police surveillance and military offensive capability. Drone use ought to be monitored and critiqued. Even if there is no Center for Drone Policy and Ethics… shouldn’t there be?

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