by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
drones, foia, san diego, seattle

eff, muckrock

San Diego Refuses To Answer FOIA Requests About Drones Because 'There Is Very Little Public Benefit'

from the keeping-the-public-in-the-dark-for-their-own-benefit dept

A few months ago, MuckRock and the EFF teamed up to start a drone watch effort, in which they send Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) -- or the local equivalent -- requests to local governments and police departments, seeking to find out information on local law enforcement using drones. At last count, over 200 such requests have been made. You can track them here. As you might imagine, they're getting very varied responses, with some saying that there are no responsive documents. In many cases, it's likely that this is true.

However, the folks at MuckRock discovered something interesting in looking over some of the responses. While the San Diego County Sheriff's office initially stated that they had no responsive documents, reviewing the Seattle Police Department's response suggested that San Diego was lying. Why? Because the Seattle release shows an email from a manufacturer of drones, Datron World Communications, to Seattle police in which they share a sales quote that was sent to San Diego for a drone, the Scout UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).
Attached is the quotation recently provided to the SD Sheriff's CID team. They visited Datron's facility and experienced the system with all three cameras and left with a flashdrive full of personal footage and a new found purpose for submitting their wish-list early. Use this quote as a reference point for configuring your system. With this we should be able to tailor an ideal system for your needs and gain marketing support for 'special pricing' specifically for Seattle PD.
Given this contradiction, MuckRock sent a followup request to San Diego, asking the Sheriff's office to explain this newly revealed information. In response, the sheriff's "legal advisor" sent a note saying that "we decline to comment on the sales quotation referenced in your September 4, 2012 letter."
Well, isn't that nice? Of course, under freedom of information laws you can't just ignore such requests. As MuckRock notes:
As is true in most states, California's public records law provides that documents related to equipment purchases are matters of public record unless exempted by statute. Accordingly, the San Diego County Sheriff and other public agencies have the latitude to justify denial of public records requests, but not to "deny comment" when faced with such a request.
After continuing to press the San Diego Sheriff's office, MuckRock was first told that San Diego had not purchased such drones and then that it will not release the records because "there is very little public benefit in the release of such records," in part because the quote from the company had not resulted in a purchase. The office then notes that the request is denied "on the grounds that any information and/or records obtained by the Sheriff's Department are protected by the Deliberative Process privilege, as well as the Official Information privilege (Evidence Code 1040)."

Again, MuckRock notes that San Diego is misreading the law in question:
But public records law puts the burden of evidence not on those who seek disclosure, but on those who would keep them from public view. Evidence Code section 1040 of California's disclosure law, which the San Diego County Sheriff's office has invoked as a basis for its denial, provides that public agencies may refuse to disclose official information in the case that such disclosure "is against the public interest because there is a necessity for preserving the confidentiality of the information that outweighs the necessity for disclosure in the interest of justice."

The onus is on the Sheriff to demonstrate how releasing the documents sought by MuckRock would injure the public interest.
As they note, the public has a "right to know" when their government is using drones to surveil the public, and it's unfortunate that some governments seem to be stonewalling requests for information.

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    weneedhelp (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:09am


    We dont need no stinkin drones.

    Love to use those paid-for-by-the-people war toys on their own people.

    How long until the little drones that flew around taking your picture in Half-Life2 become a reality?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    gorehound (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:13am

    Re: Drones

    People Supporting these Drones are pretty damn stupid greedy Assholes.
    They are supporting the instruments of their own demise.
    Drones will be some of the instruments used to Destroy Our Freedom and make this Nation the Police State it is fast becoming.

    Those flying drones in Half Life will become a Reality but the Resolve of many Americans for Freedom will also be a Motivator for many of us.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    weneedhelp (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:17am


    (FOAI)Whats an FOAI? I know about FOIA but not FOAI. LOL

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    weneedhelp (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:22am

    Re: Re: Drones

    "Resolve of many Americans for Freedom" I dont see it. Many PPL I talk too dont seem to be too concerned.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Michael, 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:24am


    The FOIA always seems so toothless. Here is an example of an agency lying in response and there is no recourse. How many other "nope, no document's about that here" responses have been equally false?

    Wouldn't it be nice to live in a country that actually held it's government representatives accountable for bad behavior?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:34am

    Why do they even need drones? I doubt they'll be used for catching violent criminals. Thx private prision industry.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2012 @ 11:51am

    Re: Re: Drones

    The "damn stupid greedy Assholes" all have enough money to build a big enough house that any illicit activities will be well hidden from view of these drones.

    Or they can simply remove themselves from the vacinity with all the money they are racking in. Remember, laws only affect those without the money to circumvent them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    weneedhelp (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 12:03pm

    Re: Re: Re: Drones

    They are silly to think that. Once the beast is let loose, it will be used against them. Just ask General David Petraeus.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    crade (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 12:20pm

    If the government is able to determine which information has sufficient public benefit, then it is hard to imagine how there would be a need for a freedom of information process.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    William Chambers, 20 Nov 2012 @ 2:04pm

    Re: Legit Uses

    Police already use helicopters to support ground forces in various searches. There's no reason to suspect the current intention is anything different, but like GPS devices being different then FBI tails, the lower limitations on their use do warrant concern.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    DannyB (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 2:06pm


    To avoid being labeled a terrorist, you should simply remove the word "If" from the beginning of your post. Please see the ministry of truth's acceptable use policy for intarweb postings.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2012 @ 5:19pm

    OK, this is the San Diego police department, not the Army or the CIA. We have EVERY RIGHT to know if they are considering buying drones. This isn't a matter of national defense or state secrets. It's a police department.

    "there very little public benefit" - really? So, even though you were considering buying drones, there could be no benefit to the public having any knowledge of anything related? Not even a REDACTED document? They pretty much just claim executive privledge here.

    I also have to wonder what the heck is IN those documents, that they are still trying to keep them secret even though we already KNOW they were considering buying drones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Merhawie, 20 Nov 2012 @ 6:04pm

    Give 'em hell!

    Give 'em hell on the people's behalf!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Judge Dred, 21 Nov 2012 @ 3:48am

    Translation of the San Diego Sheriff's office response. "We are above the law, because we are the law. Mwaahahahaha!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    FriendlyNeighborhoodSpiderman, 21 Nov 2012 @ 4:44am

    They could use those for search and rescue purposes, that department covers a huge rural area, including desert terrain. Operating a drone for hours costs the same as one helicopter for 20 minutes.

    Go find a new bridge to troll.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    The dude, 21 Nov 2012 @ 5:31am


    Do you want some salt with your grass sheep?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2012 @ 5:44am

    Drone Sport, A New Game

    If someone, say a hunter out shooting quail, were to shoot down a drone, that doesn't exist, thinking it was some sort of strange new species, would they be prosecuted?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2012 @ 5:46am


    Then why the secrecy?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    TTomkins, 22 Nov 2012 @ 9:15pm

    Re: Re: Drones

    The "Patriot" Act was the definitive end to any hopes that we are not a police state. With a conservative Supreme Court agreeing that warrants are a thing of the past, we are screwed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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