Editorial: Keep An Eye On Seattle’s Revised Drone Policy

The Seattle Times

Officer Jim Britt demonstrates the unmanned aerial vehicle during an October informational meeting at the Garfield Community Center.

Officer Jim Britt demonstrates the unmanned aerial vehicle during an October informational meeting at the Garfield Community Center.

The Seattle City Council approved regulations that cover the Seattle Police Department’s use of unmanned aircraft systems. But the department has to start all over again, under the new rules.

That much has apparently not changed. Last week the SPD secured a last-minute revision of pending City Council legislation that laid out the operating conditions for the use of surveillance technology, including drones.

The unanimously approved council bill allows the police to use drones under three sets of conditions: when they have a warrant to do so; under certain “exigent” emergency circumstances; and in the course of a criminal investigation when the courts would not require a warrant for specified kinds of surveillance in public spaces.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz asked the council for the exemptions. He noted a council requirement to always secure a warrant could create an impediment to investigations because the courts are not inclined to issue warrants when they are not needed.

The sought-after language was included in the council bill, but its last-minute inclusion offered the public virtually no opportunity to comment during a brief public hearing.

Acquisition and use of drones by the police department will start over. Last month, Mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to return two drones to the vendor. That order still stands.

The department also will have to start over in pursuit of grants and acquisition. Councilmember Tim Burgess said the council is also interested in learning about and screening where the money comes from.

Data use, retention and status under public-information laws also needs clarification.

Civilian use of drones in the coming years is expected to flourish across the country, and that is raising privacy issues. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking at creating six drone test sites around the country.

The FAA has said all applicants must follow federal and state privacy laws.

The Washington State Legislature contemplated privacy legislation but dropped it over objections by Boeing, which wants to build the unmanned systems.

Drones were the subject of a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. The concerns that echo from Seattle City Hall were repeated in Congress by the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.: “It is not hard to imagine the serious privacy problems that this type of technology could cause.”

Seattle police need to start from scratch with a rationale for drone use that fits the need and the precautions.

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