CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — An economic success story for Iowa could turn out to be a horror story for civil liberties, say Occupy Wall Street activists who are protesting plans by a California firm to open a facility making drones for government agencies.
Economic development officials cheered this year when AirCover Integrated Solutions Corp. of Redding, Calif., picked Iowa over other states to make its line of unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras meant for emergency response and police work. The firm decided to locate in Cedar Rapids, bringing new jobs to a city trying to reinvent itself after a devastating 2008 flood, and pledged to partner with a University of Iowa research laboratory and pay back a $175,000 state loan.
But what the company will manufacture and sell to government agencies in the U.S. and around the world has set off outrage among Occupy activists, who plan a rally Saturday and other actions aimed at scuttling the deal. They warn the drones, which can be easily navigated even in urban settings, will allow police to increase surveillance and violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens, including potentially at their own protests.
"The prospect of having drones flying around, spying on people, is kind of horrific," said Nate Adeyemi, an Occupy Cedar Rapids protester helping organize the rally. "It's such an infringement upon the human right to privacy."
Adeyemi said he expected 100 or more activists to protest outside the century-old Cherry Building, where AirCover hopes to start making its products in January.
Company President James Hill said he would not be deterred by the protest and that the protesters are uninformed about the company and its potentially life-saving aircraft. He envisions agencies using them to search for people lost after earthquakes and tidal waves, to find patients with dementia who disappear, to determine the direction of forest fires, to monitor levies during floods and to look for suspicious packages in stadiums.
And yes, Hill acknowledged, law enforcement could use them for investigation and surveillance — and it would be the responsibility of each agency to make sure they comply with all privacy and information-gathering rules. But he noted protesters who meet in public have no expectation of privacy and are already widely photographed by police, the news media and themselves.
"I recognize and respect their right to protest," he said. "But if they knew what we were about, maybe they'd think otherwise. We're not Wall Street people. We're Main Street. We're from average families."
Under current regulations, Hill said, the vehicles must weigh less than 5 pounds and operate at 400 feet above ground level or less. To fly higher, operators need to comply with a variety of onerous safety regulations. The aircraft are useful in tight urban settings where they can navigate more safely than helicopters. People can learn how to operate them in 10 minutes, he said.
"If an agency chooses to monitor them (the protesters), they can. We're not doing anything that's new," he said. "We're just providing a value that makes it easier and more productive to do exactly what an individual would be doing on the ground: taking pictures."
Protesters say that's precisely what causes concern. They worry the drones will be used to harass and spy on peaceful protesters and will be more ubiquitous than officers watching with binoculars or cameras. And in a petition opposing AirCover that protesters are circulating, they say they do not believe the technology will be reliable for other uses.
"More reliable emergency response can be made by the natural instincts of fellow human beings, rendering this technology for emergency services, utterly useless," it says.
Occupy protesters are considering other rallies in Des Moines outside the Iowa Department of Economic Development, whose board awarded AirCover a $175,000 loan that will be repaid with interest between 2017 and 2020 based on its revenues; and at the University of Iowa Operator Performance Laboratory, which will work with the firm to hone its technology.
Iowa Department of Economic Development spokeswoman Tina Hoffman said the project met the criteria for the loan after a routine review. She said the rules do not bar specific industries from qualifying and the department is not in the business of "making judgment calls" about products.
"It's going to bring jobs to the state," she said. "We've got these programs in place to help companies to do that and to grow in the state. That's what happened here."
Thomas Schnell, an Iowa engineering professor and director of the laboratory, said the vehicles have many valid uses, such as taking pictures of real estate from the sky, and "none of them would intrude, in my opinion, on anyone's privacy in the public space."