Arguing about Confederate Statues and History

Confederate Statue photo
Photo by Ron Cogswell

Much has been made about the relatively high public support for keeping Confederate statues. For example, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the majority (54%)of Americans favor keeping the statues, while only a minority (27%) want them removed. A number of explanations have been suggested for why such a significant portion of Americans support keeping the statues.
⁃ These represent a part of our history
⁃ They’re a symbol of Southern pride
⁃ It’s just coded racism

But if we want to remove these statues and monuments (and I’m certainly on this side), it’s important to understand why there is so much opposition to doing so and how one could counter that opposition.

Tom H.C. Anderson of the text analytics software company OdinText ran a nice survey, analyzing open-ended responses to try to understand how people explain their support for keeping or removing the statues. He first asked if Confederate Civil War Monuments should be allowed in the US.1 Following this, he gave people an open-ended question, asking why or why not.

For the three-fifths (61%) who said allow the statues, nearly all of the respondents explained this by saying something about our history. So, if keeping the statues is about maintaining our history, what happens if we explicitly make a statement out protecting history while still removing statues from public places. That should increase support for this action.

One survey, by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling supports this interpretation. They asked specifically asked about support or opposition to relocating to museums or other locations where they can be placed in historical context. This was the only poll I found that found a majority supporting removal (58% supporting relocation, 26% opposing).

However, I don’t think most people really consider moving them to museums, so I wanted to tease apart the issue of how one might remove the statues. I ran my own survey, using Google Consumer Surveys,2 asking the following question:

Which best represents your opinion about Confederate statues and monuments in public places?3

  • They should remain where they are
  • They should be moved to a museum
  • They should be completely removed

When presented with these three choices, people still chose “remain” most frequently, but it was no longer the majority option, but a plurality. Instead, the combination of moving to a museum or removing completely was the majority choice. See table 1, below.

Answer ChoicePercent
Remain44%
Moved to a museum34%
Removed completely22%

For those that really see statues as representing an important part of history and want them to be preserved for that reason, they now have a way to express that.

I take two key ideas away from this:

  1. Framing the argument: Those who want the statues removed (and I count myself among them) can more effectively frame the argument by including the concept of preserving history (and setting the context). There are some (although perhaps a small percentage) who really believe that it’s about history and they can (perhaps) be won over. And those that are using the argument of preserving history as a pretext will have to come up with a darned good counter-argument when removing (or rather moving) the statues is framed explicitly in terms of preserving that history.
  2. Evidence that “history” is just a pretext: A plurality (and close to a majority) still said that the statues should remain, rather than placed in historical context. Because they could have chosen to say move to a museum and didn’t do so, it suggests to me that many people who say history, don’t really mean that. Instead, it’s about, in their mind, honoring heroes fighting for a noble cause, even if they won’t acknowledge that the “noble” cause was slavery, the owning of other human beings.

A quick diversion on the history of these statues and monuments: these were largely erected between 1900 and 1915, when Jim Crow laws dominated after attempts at integration following reconstruction and leading up to the rebirth of the KKK in 1915. The United Daughters of Confederacy put up a huge portion of these monuments and worked to promote a revisionist history of the South.

A second, but smaller peak occurred during the 1960s, during the civil rights era, especially in the naming of schools after Confederate politicians and soldiers.

In other words, these statues, monuments, and schools weren’t put there to celebrate what happened in 1865 but promote White supremacy and attack the civil rights of Blacks at that time.


  1. I do have some issues with this framing of the alternatives. The “should be allowed” phrasing suggests a ban on such monuments, which some people would see as running counter to the American ideals of freedom and liberty.
     
  2. Google Consumer surveys attempt to match the overall US internet population through the use of stratified sampling and then weighting at the end. Google uses “inferred” data on gender, geographic distribution, and age distribution, through respondents’ browsing history (DoubleClick cookies for age & gender and IP address for geography). They then attempt to match this inferred data to national demographics from the US Census Current Population Survey (CPS). Because it matches the US internet population (now about 87% of the total US adult population), the results skew somewhat younger, higher in income, higher educational attainment, and less rural. In addition, there’s no information on race/ethnicity, which would have been particularly useful for this question. Not surprisingly, Whites and Blacks, on average, respond very differently to this question (see the Reuters/Ipsos poll referenced above). 
  3. The survey ran between 24 August and 26 August, with 384 respondents, for a margin of error of ±5%. 
Hand-painted "Vote" sign

Polling and voter fraud

A recent Morning Consult/POLITICO poll indicated that a plurality of voters think that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton was helped most by voter fraud. According to the poll, 35% of respondents think voter fraud helped Donald Trump and 30% think it helped Hillary Clinton. Only 18% indicated that no voter fraud occurred (another 17% said they didn’t know or had no opinion).

That’s an interesting result and, in some ways, runs counter to Trump’s narrative of the popular vote. If voter fraud helped him more than it helped Hillary Clinton, then it can’t be responsible for his being a loser in the popular vote. He just lost.

But in a more important way, it confirms Trump’s and the Republican’s narrative about wide-spread voter fraud. Regardless which candidate they think it helped in this past election, if the general public believes voter fraud is pervasive, it becomes much easier to enact legislation to fight this non-existent problem. And the problem does not exist. As nearly every credible study has shown, incidence rates of voter fraud are just infinitesimal (see the Brennan Center’s terrific report for an excellent summary of the evidence).

But the polling itself, and the reporting of it raises some concerns for me. The Morning Consult article on the results does lead with the sentence, “President Donald Trump has insisted, without evidence [emphasis added], that the 2016 election was rife with illegal voting…” But that statement could be interpreted just that Trump himself provided no evidence, not that no evidence for voter fraud exists.

While it’s true that Trump has provided no evidence, any story on this issue, including reports of survey results such as this, should go further and affirmatively state that evidence for significant in-person voter fraud does not and could not exist, because you can’t provide evidence for something that doesn’t actually occur.

I’ll go even further and suggest that an article on suggestions of voter fraud should include reference to the much more significant issue of voter suppression. It, after all, does exist. Since the wave election of 2010 and after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, 20 states have passed laws to restrict voting. More importantly, these laws affect Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters at significantly higher rates than White voters.

Woman holding sign that says "Voter Suppression is Unamerican"
Voting Rights March on 10 December 2011 in NYC

Brendan Nyhan and others have researched and discussed the difficulty of challenging false information, and how attempts to rebut such misinformation can lead to a “backfire” effect. When attempt to rebut a false statement, one can actually reinforce those falsehoods with those who are motivated to believe the incorrect facts because the falsehoods support their world view. Instead, it may more effective to to frame your rebuttal in an affirmative way, rather than directly counter the false information.

This leads to my broader concern about this poll. When one asks about issues for which clear answers exist, what is our responsibility as researchers? We can study perceptions of voter fraud and we can report on what our respondents believe, but we can’t let that stand alone. But as I’ve just stated, when reporting the results, we must include the reality of the situation (e.g., widespread voter fraud does not exist; almost no cases of in-person fraud have been uncovered). Otherwise, we risk contributing to the perpetuation of false information.

But what about within the poll itself? Do we have any duty to our respondents to correct knowingly false information? Clearly, we wouldn’t want to bias the answers, but at the end of the survey, do we connect respondents to the true information? I don’t have good answers on this, but it’s an important question to consider.

Associations and Professional Societies Respond to Trump Immigration & Refugee Ban

Numerous non-profit professional and trade associations and other professional societies have responded to Trump’s ill-formed and unconstitutional1 Executive Order banning refugees and immigration from seven predominately Muslim countries. These associations and societies serve to bring together professionals in their fields of interest through conferences, publications, certifications, and so on. Given their missions, it’s not surprising that many of them have been outspoken about how the open and free flow of information and educated professionals strengthens the United States, not weakens it.

Highlights of Responses to the Executive Order

On 31 January 2017, 164 (at last count) professional scientific, engineering and education societies, national associations, and universities signed an open letter to Donald Trump urging him to rescind the order. Signatories include organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the Vision Sciences Society; as well was major research universities including Harvard, Rutgers, Yale, and others.

In part, the statement says that the groups are “…deeply concerned that this Executive Order will have a negative impact on the ability of scientists and engineers in industry and academia to enter, or leave from and return to, the United States. This will reduce U.S. science and engineering output to the detriment of America and Americans.”

More than 27,000 individual academic supporters have signed a petition against the Executive Order, including more than 20,000 faculty members, 51 Nobel Laureates and 572 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Arts.

American Association for the Advancement of Science
AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” Based in Washington, DC, AAAS has over 120,000 members in 90 countries in all fields of science and mathematics.

science photo
Photo by Kingsway School

In addition to being a signatory to the letter above, AAAS released an earlier statement calling on “…President Donald Trump to consult with the world’s largest general scientific organization to find ways to balance the nation’s necessity for the free flow of international scientific talent while safeguarding national security.” In addition, they’ve sent out member recruitment emails using this issue to encourage people to join AAAS, with the tag line “Science has no borders.”

American Society of Association Executives (ASAE)2
ASAE serves those who work at associations, large and small, from technical fields such as American Institute of Physics, to retailers like the The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. In other words, it’s the association for those working at associations. Based in Washington, DC, ASAE has about 21,000 members.

In their response, “ASAE Responds to Trump’s Travel Ban”, ASAE President and CEO John Graham, CAE states “ASAE urges the administration to clarify the intent of this order and confirm our nation’s commitment to equality and humanitarianism.”

IEEE3
IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. IEEE has more than 420,000 members in over 160 countries in the fields of electrical and electronic Engineering, computing, biomedical engineering, and many other technical fields. IEEE’s main office is in Piscataway, NJ.

2017 President Karen Bartleson, in a statement released on 2 February 2017, states, “[IEEE] believes that governments of all countries must recognize that, in a world of increasing global connectivity, science and engineering are fundamental enterprises, for which openness, international collaboration, and the free flow of ideas and talented individuals are essential to advancement.”

American Psychological Association (APA)4
American Psychological Association (APA), based in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing all fields of psychology in the United States, from such areas as clinical psychology, social psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and so on.

In a statement released 1 February 2017, APA says that the “Trump Administration Orders Pose Harm to Refugees, Immigrants, Academic Research and International Exchange, According to Psychologists.”

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
ACM has members in all areas of computing, software, hardware, AI, networking, theory, and so on. Headquartered in New York City, ACM has more than 100,000 members with chapters in more than 50 countries.

In their statement, ACM, like other associations, expresses how science requires the open exchange of ideas. “Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists.”

Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA)
Based in Bloomington, IN, MPSA is dedicated to the advancement of scholarship in all areas of political science. It has over 8,000 members in more than 100 countries.

In addition to signing the letter referenced above, MPSA has released two other statements about the ban. The first calls on Trump to rescind the Executive Order and the second talks about how the MPSA Conference will address the issue (such as allowing presenters from the seven countries present virtually) and lists other ways for those in the political science community to get involved in the issue.

The Gerontological Society of America (GSA)
The GSA is the largest interdisciplinary organization in the world devoted to the scientific study of aging. It has 5,500 members, 18% of which are outside the US and is based in Washington, DC.

In their statement, GSA points out that all six Americans who won Nobel prizes last year were immigrants. Further, they say that Trump’s Executive Order “…threatens the free flow of scientific information by limiting interaction among scientists. Such restrictions are not consistent with GSA’s commitment to open collaboration and communication between researchers.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

Photo by Kevin H.


  1. See article by David Cole, ACLU Legal Director, on how the Executive Order violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 
  2. Disclosure: I’m a member of ASAE and have served as a volunteer, most recently as Chair of their Research Committee. 
  3. Disclosure: I work at IEEE but had nothing to do with their public statement on the Trump Ban. Furthermore, I do not speak on behalf of IEEE and all writing here (and elsewhere on this blog) is my own personal opinion. 
  4. Disclosure: I’m a former member of APA. 
Photo of a dirt road with a crooked dead end sign

Fatalism is our enemy

As we enter a new political era, with a president that behaves in unprecedented ways (willful disregard for the truth; putting his chief strategist, a promoter of white nationalism on the National Security Council), many people are looking for ways to fight back. As we do that, I think it’s important to remember that we have many places to fight, including not just Trump, but those in Congress who want to take our country backward, state and local officials who will control redistricting in 2020, and the wealthy oligarchs who fund much of the conservative movement.

One battle we need to include in this list, however, is our own sense of fatalism. Too many times I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk as if the situation is out of our control, that nothing we will do will have an effect on the outcome. I hear this often when I talk about privacy. “Why do anything to protect my privacy from the government? They have all my data anyhow.” But these beliefs lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you truly believe that your actions have no effect, you’ll never do the things that might actually make a change.

Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke eloquently of how in the fight against racism, “fatalism isn’t really an option.” Even if you believe that change won’t occur in your lifetime, you need to work to make that change happen for your children, for your grandchildren.

We don’t want people to fall into fatalism or nihilism. We must view ourselves as change-makers, optimistic about the future and our ability to change it. Our antagonists are these fatalists who don’t think the world can change, that Trump leads to Armageddon. It’s only through our actions, taking the long view, that we will eventually create the society that our ideals tell should be ours.

This is why I am so happy about the recent protests and marches. In pictures of the Women’s Marches,  you could see the joy, excitement, and determination on people’s faces.  In person, these feelings were palpable. One march may not have an effect on its own, and many have written about how the energy in those marches need to be harnessed.  But there is energy, there are people who believe they can cause change, make a difference, and dare to create “…a more perfect union.”

constitution photo
Photo by StevenANichols

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Photo by bennylin0724

 

Happy Birthday gummies

Is We Shall Overcome the new Happy Birthday?

In 2016, the song Happy Birthday finally entered the public domain.  This isn’t because the requisite time finally passed, but because of a lawsuit filed by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who showed that the murky history of the lyrics and the music to Happy Birthday extended far enough back to make the copyright no longer valid.

Now the same lawyer, Mark Rifkin, is trying to bring We Shall Overcome into the public domain.  The song, both the lyrics and the music, similarly has a long (and murky) history.

Photo by Lynne Hand

Women's March in Washington DC, 21 January 2017

Music and Protest Marches

As a child of parents who came of age in the early ‘60s and had music on all the time, I associate marches and protests with the folk music revival.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the great We Shall Overcome, which has a somewhat tangled and clouded history, with origins perhaps in a refrain sung by slaves and adopted by Black churches in the early 20th century.

Here are four versions sung by people who had a hand in making it the powerful symbol it has become. The first is by Pete Seeger, who’s version is the one I learned from as kid. He may (or may not) have been the one who rewrote the lyrics to become “We shall overcome…” rather than “We will overcome…” He’s perhaps the most associated with the song.

However, a much less well-known folklorist, Guy Carawan, modified the song to be easier to sing in large groups and introduced it to activists at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

But it was another famous folk singer, Joan Baez, who at the age of 22, performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington. This video, from the National Archives, doesn’t necessarily do a great job of capturing the sense of the crowd, but when it pans up to the face of Lincoln, it does make me tear up.

Finally, here’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who can’t be beat for the sheer power of her voice. Jackson also sung at the March on Washington and sung Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite gospel song, Take my hand, Precious Lord, at his funeral in 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the words to We Shall Overcome multiple times, including in his final sermon before his assassination. The language Dr. King used in that sermon are particularly important to remember today. As he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It has been covered many, many times, including by Bernie Sanders in 1987, when he was still mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Listen, if you dare. Actually, and fortunately, Bernie isn’t doing the singing, but he introduces the song and then a talented group of Vermont performers do the actual singing, with the occasional interjection by Sanders.

Other more recent covers include the British folk/punk singer Frank Turner, Roger Waters in support of Palestinians ending the blockade of Gaza, and even versions in Hindi and Bengali.

See the article at The Atlantic by David A. Graham for a history of the song focusing on Carawan’s contributions. Carawan died at age 87 in 2015.

Is Your TV Listening to You?

I’ve seen a bunch of stories on the wording of Samsung’s privacy statement for their SmartTV.

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition

— from Samsung’s SmartTV Privacy Policy

Sure, that’s awfully creepy sounding.   Many people have made the comparison to 1984’s Big Brother, always listening to you.   However, is what it’s actually doing any more creepy than Siri on the iPhone? Or Google Now?  Not really.   In all these cases, the machine, be it your TV or your smartphone, listens to your voice, sends that information to a server somewhere else, processes it on that server, and sends the response back your local device.

So, it’s probably good that they let you know that they’re listening.

According to CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk, Samsung doesn’t retain the information or sell it to third parties, but transfer it for processing purposes.  But Samsung doesn’t actually say that anywhere that a consumer could have seen.   They’ve made their privacy policy (like most) deliberately vague, not actually telling you much useful about how they do anything.

Companies do have good business reasons for doing this.   It’s certainly easier, and if they don’t make specific promises, they can’t get into trouble with the FTC for doing anything different from what is in the privacy policy.  And, if they decide six months from now that they want to sell your info, they can just do that.

What might companies tell you?

  • Are they retaining the information (rather than simply processing it and executing commands)?  If they do retain your information, for  how long?
  • D0 they transfer the info to third parties?  Do they sell it to third parties?
  • Is there any encryption? Or is it all transferred in the clear?
  • How are they monetizing your data?

Practically no company provides this level of information, at least not in their privacy policy.  Apple, for example, makes it hard to find  information on Siri.  Even Siri’s privacy policy is nearly impossible to find.   According to a Wired article from 2013, Apple keeps your Siri data for two years (six months where you’re identifiable plus another 18 months anonymized).

Apparently now Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) requested information from Samsung and LG about their privacy policies and what they do with the voice information they collect.   Franken does have a strong pro-privacy record, but I doubt any actual action will be forthcoming.   It’s up to consumers to press these companies to have clearer privacy policies that actually explain what they do.

 

Vaccines — Personal Belief vs. Religious Exemptions

First things first — there should be no exemptions. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t vaccinate your child you are guilty of child abuse and neglect(unless there is a medical reason not to do so). The government retains an important role in enforcing laws requiring vaccinations.  A state law like Mississippi’s (yes, that Mississippi) with only medical exemptions ensures that nearly all kids are vaccinated.

But in the United States, with our separation between church and state, why should only a religious person get special treatment?   If a state offers something to someone because a religious belief, shouldn’t someone with an equally sincere philosophical belief be entitled to the same benefit?  For example, as currently conceived, if called for military duty in the United States, one does not have to be religious to be a conscientious objector.   It would also include “moral or ethical beliefs.”

There actually is a related NJ case from 2014 that touches on this topic, Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor.  In this case, a nurse who refused to have a flu shot was dismissed from her job and denied unemployment benefits.   The court reversed this ruling and granted her the benefits, because to do otherwise would violate the First Amendment.

Under these circumstances, by denying appellant’s application to receive unemployment benefits based only on her unwillingness to submit to the employer’s religion-based policy, the Board violated appellant’s rights under the First Amendment.

On the issue of vaccines, the answer is, of course, easy — no exemptions.

Popular US Baby Names — BabyCenter versus Social Security Administration

I was listening to the latest episode of Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” parenting podcast and one of the topics was baby names.  The guests was BabyCenter executive editor Janet Ozzard, who talked about the most popular baby names of 2014.  BabyCenter collects its information on baby names from those that have given their baby’s name to the site, which for 2014 included somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 names.   I thought it might be fun to see how similar this is to the Social Security Administration (SSA) list of baby names, which is essentially the entire population of babies in the US, rather than a self-selected group.

Now the Social Security Administration public list contains the names of about 3.6 million babies born in the United States in 2013.   This information comes from Social Security card applications and includes all babies born in the United States if the name has at least 2 letters, and information on state of birth, sex, and year are included.  They do exclude from the public list names that are given to 4 or fewer babies, for privacy reasons.

On the other hand, the BabyCenter list only contains the names of those that have been given to them by participating parents (usually the mother).   While 400,000 or 500,000 is a lot of people, these are clearly not representative of the US population.   First, it’s likely that those that have registered on BabyCenter are different in some significant ways from the overall US population, if for no other reason than they are on the Internet.   According to the Pew Research Internet Project, those not on the Internet are more likely to speak Spanish, have lower incomes, and have less than a high school education.  And, of course, not all BabyCenter visitors are from the US, perhaps only about 50%.

Listed below are the top 20 names for 2013 for boys and girls for both BabyCenter and the Social Security Administration.  I used 2013 data, as that’s the most recent year for which data is available for both the SSA and BabyCenter.  There are some interesting differences.   For girls, the first six are almost exactly the same (Mia and Ava switch places).  Then we get into some big differences.   Zoe is #8 on the BabyCenter list, but only #31 on the SSA list.  However, this is because BabyCenter combines similar names while SSA treats each unique spelling as a different name.  And if you add the number of girls named “Zoey” (#24) and “Zoe” (#31) on the SSA list, they would end up being #7.  However, Lily is #7 on BabyCenter, but only #27 for the SSA.  Similarly Madelyn is #13 on BabyCenter but #68 on the SSA list (although if you combine this with Madeline (#90) it would be #23.  Conversely, Elizabeth is #10 on the SSA list, but all the way down to #46 for BabyCenter.

For boys, initially the differences look greater, but again part of this occurs because BabyCenter combines similar names.  Jackson is #1 on the BabyCenter list, but only #16 on the SSA list.  However, if this is added to the number of boys named Jaxson (#46 on the SSA list), it would be number one too.  Still, the #2 name on BabyCenter list is Aiden, which isn’t even in the top 10 on the SSA list (#12).   And, in the other direction, William is #5 on the SSA list but only #20 for BabyCenter.

So, if you’re a BabyCenter user, and want to know what others like you are naming their kids, look at the BabyCenter list.  If you want to see what people in the US are naming their children, go to the SSA list.   And if you want a cool visualization of historical changes, go to the BabyNameWizard.com NameVoyager.

 Girls Boys
Social SecurityBabyCenterSocial SecurityBabyCenter
1.SophiaSophiaNoahJackson
2.EmmaEmmaLiamAiden
3.OliviaOliviaJacobLiam
4.IsabellaIsabellaMasonLucas
5.AvaMiaWilliamNoah
6.MiaAvaEthanMason
7.EmilyLilyMichaelJayden
8.AbigailZoeAlexanderEthan
9.MadisonEmilyJaydenJacob
10.ElizabethChloeDanielJack
11.CharlotteLaylaElijahCaden
12.AveryMadisonAidenLogan
13.SofiaMadelynJamesBenjamin
14.ChloeAbigailBenjaminMichael
15.EllaAubreyMatthewCaleb
16.HarperCharlotteJacksonRyan
17.AmeliaAmeliaLoganAlexander
18.AubreyEllaDavidElijah
19.AddisonKayleeAnthonyJames
20.EvelynAveryJosephWilliam

Drones for Law Enforcement — but with what privacy and fourth amendment protections?

Ars Technica reported yesterday on the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) acquisition of two drones.  Of course, use of drones still needs approval from the FAA.   According to the ACSO, “The reason for specifically acquiring this is search and rescue.”  However, according to the ACSO General Order supporting the drone use, search and rescue is the 4th out of 10 uses.   These includes two that are very broad — “post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation” and pretty much anything related to a felony.

Drones can be a good thing.  In fact, for the stated goal, search and rescue, drones can be great.   In comparison to other aerial surveillance options (e.g., helicopters or planes) they’re cheaper and easier to implement.   ACSO says they’re spending $97,000 on this, which is a very little compared to a helicopter.  And training is certainly a lot easier too.

So what should government agencies do when they want to use drones?  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists three requirements for drone legislation.   While two of these deal with private and commercial use of drones, the third emphasizes the need for law enforcement to get a search warrant when using drones for investigative purposes.  The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office policy, as currently posted, does not require a warrant for any use of drones.  Similarly, the ACLU recommends that the following be included when government organizations implement a drone program.

  • USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
  • DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
  • POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
  • ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
  • WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Note that one of these recommendations is that the public actively participates in the  decision to set up a drone program.   However, in Alameda County Sheriff’s Office situation, the Sheriff seems to have excluded critics from the process — EFF and the ACLU of Northern California only found out about the press conference from a story in the newspaper.  And I’d go even further here.   When a government agency sets up any program like this, including drones, surveillance cameras, automatic license plate readers, and so on, the public should be involved, there should be regular (e.g., annual) reviews of such programs, and independent evaluations conducted to determine if these programs are meeting the goals set for them.  This can help eliminate wasteful programs and reduce “mission creep.”

I also want to mention the “public” survey that Sheriff’s office has touted as support for their purchase (given that my day job is actually conducting surveys).  According to the reporting, they did get over three hundred responses.  But this survey clearly suffers from selection bias — the people who responded to the survey aren’t representative of Alameda County residents, but people who attended a “Cop Shop Barbecue” (and paid $12 to do so).

While I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if a significant number of people are okay with unfettered use of drones, the one poll I’m familiar with actually suggest the opposite.   A Monmouth University poll from 2013 (PDF) showed that three-quarters of respondents wanted law enforcement to have to get a search warrant from a judge before using drones versus only 14% think that law enforcement agencies should be able to decide on their own when to use them.