Last year, Seattle became one of the nation's first cities to buy unmanned drones for use by the police department. Public reaction was less "Gee-whiz" than "What the heck?"
The phrase "unmanned drones" typically conjures images of places like Afghanistan. But the Federal Aviation Administration says it wants to start testing the civilian use of aerial drones here in the U.S. and has already issued special permits to a few police departments interested in trying them out.
But after a raucous Seattle City Council hearing earlier this month, the mayor killed the drone program. The controversy has now moved to the state capital.
In a packed hearing room in Olympia, privacy activist Sam Bellomio is proud to say he was one of those who helped to ground the drones in Seattle.
"It's almost like we're back in communist Russia or Nazi Germany," Bellomio says. "These unmanned drones will be another tool for an eventual police state."
An Issue That Can't Wait, Opponents Say
While Bellomio is talking, a toy helicopter suddenly takes to the air. It's just a state representative at the controls, having a little fun before a hearing, but lawmakers here are serious about regulating drones.
Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington State, says this is the time for states to act.
"We don't think this is an issue the Legislature can wait a year to address," Narayan says. "We think that these drone technologies are being developed now, and they have already outpaced the public policy debate."
The ACLU counts 21 states considering bills to regulate drones. State lawmakers appear to be reacting to recent moves by the federal government to bring the technology into civilian life.
The FAA recently announced plans to test drones in six yet-to-be-determined sites around the country. That's in addition to the certification it's already given to a handful of law enforcement agencies. The feds will even pay for the drones; the two purchased by Seattle, for instance, were financed by the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Areas Security Initiative, a program meant to equip cities to combat terrorism.
The Homeland Security connection struck many in Seattle as Orwellian, adding to the backlash. The Narayan says issuing state rules will help put people more at ease with the technology.
"We think if you have those regulations in place, the public can feel confident that they know what the drones are being used for," says Narayan. "And, more importantly, that they're not being used to personally surveil them."
The Washington state bill would require police to get warrants for drone surveillance and to delete imagery of people not targeted. The bill also creates broad exceptions for emergencies.
To Proponents, A Question For The Courts
But some police agencies say the legislation is still too restrictive.
"It's patently absurd to do those kind of limitations, where we don't have them on manned rotary aircraft, manned fixed-wing aircraft and all the other technologies that are in place," says Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Barker says the Legislature could cripple a promising new crime-fighting technology before it has even been tried.
Better, he says, to leave the rules up to the courts.
"It's what they do — they outline search and seizure for us, they tell us where government officials can intrude and where they can't, and what is required to do that," Barker says.
Proponents also wonder why drones are being singled out when lawmakers haven't restricted other privacy-piercing technologies like license plate scanners and facial recognition software.
Privacy advocate Sam Bellomio has his own theory about why drones touch a nerve.
"These are used in the war, in combat," he says. "So now they say, 'We want to use drones here in civilization.' So what are we, in a war against citizens?"
Bellomio admits these drones are not war machines. They're unarmed and are practically toys, capable of staying in the air for only about 15 minutes.
But the way technology moves, that's going to change fast, he says. And he'd rather have restrictions on the books before hovering drones start to seem normal.
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