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What can drones do for you today?

An Olympia hearing on the subject was standing room only as police and ACLU heavyweights duked it out over a proposal to curtail an unmanned flying surveillance craft.
Seattle police drone

Seattle police drone Credit: Flickr user wac6

Who gets to write the rules on drones?

That's the question a boisterous standing-room-only crowd — and top representatives for both police and rights organizations — showed up to answer Thursday, at the first public hearing for a bill regulating the use of unmanned surveillance vehicles.

At the heart of the debate was whether the uniqueness of the technology should warrant a unique law. "You know when a cop is flying above you in a helicopter," said ACLU state representative Shankar Narayan. "You don't know when a dragonfly-sized drone is hovering outside your window." 

House Bill 1771 would set limits on the purchase and use of drones by public agencies, including police and other enforcement offices. Under the proposal, any agency that wanted to buy a drone would need approval from the state legislature. After purchase, police would need a warrant to use drones — except in emergencies. 

Information gathered using drones would be subject to even tighter controls than home searches, and would have to be destroyed within a set amount of time unless police could prove it was part of an investigation.

A boisterous crowd filled the seats and and stood at the back and sides of Thursday's hearing. At multiple points audience members clapped and called out "Thank you," and "That's right," after statements from the front of the room challenging drones. These outbursts earned bangs of the chairman's gavel and calls for order.

Accompanying ACLU representative Narayan was Mike German, a top lawyer for the organization who travelled from Washington D.C. to testify. Drone technology is evolving so quickly, German said, that legislators have to act now to regulate the technology, before it becomes widespread.

Narayan, speaking beside German, agreed. As drones get cheaper, Narayan said to the committee, "the temptation will be to put more and more of them up there."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Taylor, R-Yakima, and other supporters repeatedly called the limits set by the bill "sideboards" that would not eliminate drones outright, but would instead make sure they were limited to strictly targeted use.

Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington State Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, disagreed, arguing forcefully against the bill. 

"We're fine with sideboards," Barker said. "But this is four walls and a ceiling."

Instead of trying to pass legislation for individual pieces of technology as they come out, Barker said, the legislature should leave the issue to the courts, who can decide the limits of drone use as challenges arise. Even that might not be necessary, Barker said, since current court rulings already regulate searches by law enforcement and the limits of what police officers can do about crimes or other activities that are in plain view of the outside world.

Noting that the courts had regulated other surveillance technolology as it evolved, including night-vision goggles and telephoto lenses, Barker said, "It's patently absurd to put on those kinds of limits when we don't have them on other kinds of technology."

At least a few members of the committee obviously agreed. Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, asked Narayan and German as well as the bill's sponsors what kind of active policing the bill allowed, citing a hypothetical situation of flying above a huge mall parking lot on Christmas, looking for thieves stealing presents from parked cars.

While supporters of the bill generally replied that the action would be allowed if it was in response to a crime in progress, Barker said the scenario highlighted the drawback of the bill — that it would keep the police from using the technology for patrols of public places.

After Barker's response, Klippert invited Barker and others to help draft an amendment — but left out the ACLU.

Contacted after the hearing, German said that those types of patrols are exactly the danger of drones and other increasingly cheap surveilance technology. Constant surveillance becoming the norm is a risk, German said. The knowledge that a person is being watched almost always causes him or her to act differently. Beyond individual privacy, society risks losing the benefits of some things people might not want to be seen doing. German cited examples like attending alcohol or drug treatment meetings, going to a family planning or mental health clinic, or attending a controversial school or church.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Feb 23, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

How curious it is when the ACLU and others want to put blinders on the police who, by commission, are there to protect the public when the public is on the public right-of-way. Have any of them ever had their car/house/garage/property broken into? Ever had anything stolen? Ever fretted over the lack of a "police presence"? We allow the police to monitor our behavior when out in the public's territory, e.g. on the public rights-of-way. They, the police, observe from their patrol vehicles, atop horses, overhead on street crossings, and some even from aircraft. Ever see the WSP use their "spotting planes" for picking up speeders? Are you ever worried you may be "picked up on radar"? And as for surveillance, can you name a store, bank, pharmacy, or mall that is camera free? And note how well the Brits and other countries catch and prosecute criminals with the aid of overhead cameras located on streets. So please, tell me, "whats the big deal" regarding police drones? Even more problematical, does anyone really care if you are walking to your AA meeting, to meet your mistress, or going to some house of worship? I for one don't care. Frankly, and as a personal opinion, I believe the police have more important issues to worry about. For short, the noise about police drones is, at best, merely white noise, and not much of that either. Unfortunately, a few people are filled with so much self-importance that they forget that is only they who harbor fears of some other person giving a damn about them. "Pity this busy monster, man unkind", to quote a famous poet. Give the police the tools they need to do their job. It will save each of us a lot of money in the end. So, with that in mind, whats wrong with that?

seebee

Posted Sat, Feb 23, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Citizens do not need to be made to live in a prison with anonymous guards constantly watching them. Citizens have a right to be left alone by police, and government. The use of the drones would become abusive of Citizens. Every time a power is given to police, or government, it gets abused.

jhande

Posted Sat, Feb 23, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle PD hasn't been trust worthy in the past and there's no reason to believe they will be in the future. The Feds had to lash them into line and now they want drones? They misuse the toys they already have, no sense in wasting money on new toys for them to abuse us with. Same will all the police in the state. None of them need drones.

When a cop says let the courts set the boundaries, that means anything goes till they are caught and it will be that way with each situation. Better to tie their hands from the start and keep them on a tight leash. No sense in more innocent people being victims of an overzealous police department.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Feb 23, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

You need to correct an error. David Taylor is a right-wing, libertarian/conservative Republican, not a Democrat. That makes his bill even more interesting and important. You guys should know there are no Democratic state lawmakers from the Yakima area.

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

This whole drone fiasco is a great source of humor and comedy to me.

To the person who is paranoid about the police looking thru her bedroom window -- what makes you think you are that interesting to them?? More than likely they would fall asleep watching you.

Classic example of our society the paranoid minority causes the majority to suffer.

leitmotif

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