FOLLOWING revelations of massive surveillance programs by the National Security Agency and other government agencies, Washington residents of all political persuasions have become increasingly concerned about the potential use of technologies such as aerial drones that could invade their privacy.
With overwhelming bipartisan support, Washington’s Legislature passed a bill, EHB 2789, on March 12 to regulate government use of drones. It awaits Gov. Jay Inslee’s approval.
EHB 2789 is a well-thought-out response to concerns about surveillance — one that doesn’t force people to choose between their privacy and the benefits of a new technology. It is a landmark privacy bill that takes a carefully balanced approach to drone technology. The governor should sign it in its entirety.
Washington currently has no rules for government drone use, so agencies can employ them without transparency or restrictions.
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The bill would allow agencies to use drones for a broad range of beneficial purposes that don’t collect personal information but otherwise would require a warrant, including search and rescue, research, fire control and emergency situations. At its heart, the bill aims to restrict suspicionless, warrantless surveillance by drones — in other words, agencies just flying them around for general spying purposes.
The legislation also would create a clear framework for acquiring drones. It would require legislative approval before agencies buy them. This would ensure public input and debate ahead of time, not after the fact.
That public discussion did not happen in Seattle before law enforcement acquired drones without transparency or standards for deploying them. Subsequent public outcry caused former Mayor Mike McGinn to shut the drone program down.
The bill also would include reporting requirements that allow the public to understand exactly how drones are being used and a governor-requested task force to drill down on drone use for regulatory enforcement. This data would give the Legislature a basis to fine-tune the framework in future years.
Why the big fuss about drones? Why treat this technology any differently than, say, helicopters?
Technology experts agree that drones would allow an unprecedented level of detailed, individualized surveillance over large areas. Drones are cheaper to use, harder to detect and capable of carrying increasingly sophisticated surveillance equipment.
As technology experts, we understand the need for the Legislature to create coherent, statewide rules for drones instead of passively waiting for invasions of privacy to happen. Those abuses may never be detected and so may never reach the courts.
EHB 2789 also would provide clarity for the drone industry. Well-considered rules are far better than a period of uncertainty. That is bad both for government and business. In fact, the chairman of the Aerospace States Association, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, recently said, “During a time when Americans are especially distrusting of their government’s regard for individual privacy, our goal has been to respect those concerns. If you don’t stand up for privacy, there’s no industry.”
The bill was carefully crafted with input from a variety of stakeholders, including Boeing, the University of Washington and state agencies. Its support is broad-based — both the ACLU and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs advocate its adoption.
One criticism of the bill is that it exempts public disclosure of some data a drone might gather. But the public understands why indiscriminate and open access to all data gathered by government drones, at the expense of individual privacy, shouldn’t fly.
Thirteen states already have adopted drone legislation, and 43 have considered or are considering it. EHB 2789 is an important step that addresses government drone policy before widespread adoption of this technology. Our state is a national leader in both technology and privacy protection. The governor should enable the use of new technology while safeguarding the privacy of Washington residents.
William Covington, left, is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law. Mike Koss is a software engineer for Google and a board member of the Museum of Flight.