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    Why Seattle needs drones

    The mayor's "no" on drones puts Seattle at the center of a nascent discussion about the role of high-tech tools in city government.
    Seattle police drone

    Seattle police drone Credit: Flickr user wac6

    Mike McGinn addressing a Town Hall meeting at Nathan Hale High School in 2011

    Mike McGinn addressing a Town Hall meeting at Nathan Hale High School in 2011 Joe Mabel

    Drones don't frighten me. Military and law enforcement agencies with drones? Now that's scary.

    President Obama's nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, faced tough questions recently about the U.S. military's use of drones to carry out targeted assassinations of American citizens without due process. As head of the National Security Council, Brennan helped make drones the centerpiece in the global War on Terror.  

    There's no reason to think Brennan sought to subvert the Constitution, or carry out attacks that a current United Nations' investigation calls potential "war crimes." But when military operations become orders of magnitude more efficient without putting U.S. lives at-risk (in the short term, at least), they become, well, just too easy.  

    That's why Mayor McGinn made the right call last week when he instructed the Seattle Police Department to end its experimental drone program.

    When I first met McGinn in 2006, the first thing he said to me was "Tell me about this Facebook thing." A week later he was hatching ideas about how to use Facebook for his nonprofit's organizing efforts. I went on to become candidate McGinn's spokesperson in the 2009 mayoral primary, and helped Seattle become one of the first partners in the Code for America program.

    Many will see this move from a Mayor who has always been eager to adopt new technologies as a win for civil liberties and police accountability. I would argue that killing the police drone program could become McGinn’s biggest technology accomplishment, and perhaps his most important legacy as Mayor.

    Cities will play a major role in shaping how drones and other high-tech tools are used, or not used in our society. Municipalities, more than the federal government or legislative bodies, govern the physical reality we live in. While federal authorities may try to promote drone use, control rests with the cities. The drone industry has already targeted city police departments (and farms) as the most promising sector for growth. 

    McGinn is the first major city mayor to stop drone use, which places Seattle at the center of conversations and even regulations about their use around the country. This matters because drones aren’t just a niche civil liberties issue. They are part of the future of managing cities. Look at developments such as IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative or the growing influence of President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer, and you’ll see that high-tech tools (robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, etc.) are the drivers of 21st century approaches to governance. Our ability to cut-costs, protect the environment, repair old infrastructure, and fulfill other key government roles will depend on how we leverage these new technologies — and restrict their use.

    McGinn could chalk up his drone ban as a win and move-on. Or he and his administration could treat it as step-one in an effort to lead the nation in sensible approaches to robotics and AI in government. While drone surveillance is a serious threat to privacy, Seattle and the region could also use these new technologies to monitor the environment or infrastructure, help formulate transportation policy or coordinate disaster response.

    If the “big one” hits, aerial drones with thermal detectors could help identify victims trapped under rubble and save lives. If a quake destroys cell-phone towers and communication infrastructure, drones with microwave or LTE technology could keep first responders and citizens in touch. On a more mundane level, drones with machine-vision technology could identify potholes and monitor road conditions. With drones bouncing laser signals off of icy streets, snow-plows and de-icers could get real-time directives sending them to the most dangerous city streets.  

    Like drones with sensors, other forms of artificial intelligence can help us solve some of the region’s most vexing problems. Does anyone really believe we’ll be able to build enough roads and mass transit to accommodate the 600,000 people expected to move into the region in the next 15 years? Self-driving cars, now legal in three states, may be the most efficient option for regional transportation policy.

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    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

    Technology, including drones, is most definitely inevitable. And we will not only accept the drone, but embrace it as necessary and permanent.

    Like the red light camera which inadvertently captures the get-away car of a murderer, eventually we'll be worn down by all of the wasted benefits.

    We'll give up our "rights" in exchange for feeling safer; after all -- if one life can be saved, it would be worth the sacrifice. What value is a life compared to a right?

    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Lives are important. But living under serveillance is inappropriate and infringes on our basic right of freedom.

    Never bend to thinking drones or red light cameras surveillance in public places aren't a major infringement.

    Even if my own son or daughter were murdered in a public place, I would not wish for all of us to be under watch. Never.

    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

    As far as drones go, if I found one hovering over my yard, my first inclination would be to take a shot at it. It better be able to eject a copy of the search warrant that allows it to be there before I have a chance to grab a shotgun.

    Self-driving cars are an interesting way to address highway congestion in the future, but "If we designated I-5, 405, and 520 'auto-pilot only,'" before the vast majority of the population had access to such cars (especially people who must show up at a location to perform actual work, many of whom today drive 20 year old vehicles) the economy would grind to a halt in a week.


    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 1:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    If I found one hovering over my yard, my first inclination would be to wonder which teener in the neighborhood received a remote control plane for his birthday and attached a camera to it. Then I'd probably stick out my tongue or do a dance.


    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 1:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    Brett, did you have some additional discussion with the mayor on this subject beyond his press statement? Otherwise it seems like a leap to call his cancelling the current drone contract a "drone ban".


    Posted Tue, Feb 12, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    What cracks me up is the question

    What makes you think you are important enough for the authorities to care?


    Posted Wed, Feb 13, 3 a.m. Inappropriate

    Citizens do not wish to feel as if they are being watched all of the time. That is what happens in a prison, someone is always watching. We do not need our lives to become imprisonment in an open air city-prison.

    Then you are not really thinking; it does not matter if the authorities care about a specific citizen. Unlimited storage of data and data mining mean that information (including video, audio) about citizens may be stored with no one ever looking at it. That is until the authorities decide a citizen is important enough to care about, or one of the authorities' cronies decides a citizens is important enough to care about; and then the information on that citizen may be retrieved.

    The data could be gathered, data mined, and used in a similiar fashion as the J. Edgar Hoover Files were used. Only now with unlimited storage, and many times the magnitude of information gathering apparatus. The idea would be to have a dossier of all citizens, which could be used if the authorities felt the need.

    Anyway, Who specifically are "the authorities"? Who will be these nebulous hidden "authorities" tomorrow?


    Posted Wed, Feb 13, 6:34 a.m. Inappropriate

    I see McGinn's flacks are all very busy trying to burnish his "image" and define his "legacy" before he runs for re-election. Let's be clear on this one. McGinn would have been fine with the drones, and with the cops who would have been using them, if not for widespread and deep-seated negative reaction to them, and a detailed proposal on how to deal with them that came from Bruce Harrell, one of his challengers.

    When it comes to the cops, McGinn is strictly see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. He didn't do jack shit when a cop murdered John T. Williams, and he was no help at all when the Justice Department had to step in to deal with repeated police abuses.

    Don't try to scam us that McGinn took the lead in rejecting the drones. That doesn't pass the smell test. I note that the spy cameras are still at Alki; what does your hero have to say about that? Oh, well, the cops will handle it, he says. Wrong answer. Wrong position. Wrong mayor. Bye-bye, Mike, and the sooner the better.


    Posted Wed, Feb 13, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mr. Horvath, are you kidding!?
    "There's no reason to think Brennan sought to subvert the Constitution, or carry out attacks that a current United Nations' investigation calls potential "war crimes."[.]"
    Brennan was a key player in forming the U.S. policy of killing Americans accused/suspected of terrorism with drones and cruise missiles on foreign soil. That complete lack of due process is the definition of 'subverting the Constitution'. Sadly, your use of quotations for war crimes, I think, gives me your answer.
    I realize this is not the crux of your article, but I have to call out B.S. when I see it...


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