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Editorial: Drone use necessitates new laws

Drones have transformed warfare over the last decade. As they become less expensive and more widely available, their use will have the same effect on domestic public safety, and in the private sector.

One could be in the sky over you in the foreseeable future.

Yet, state and local jurisdictions are almost as poorly prepared today to deal with drone use by law enforcement as national security and defense agencies were pre-Afghanistan. And as the evolution of the technology accelerates, keeping up will become more challenging.

Some states, including Idaho, this year passed laws that apply many of the same restrictions on drone use already in place for other surveillance technologies, among them: Warrants are required except when there may be an immediate threat; information unrelated to the target of the warrant must be destroyed; and abusers could be exposed to litigation when violations occur.

The Washington legislation was shelved, but will likely be back next year. Washington is the only Northwest state that has not adopted a drone-related law.

In the absence of state action, Spokane and Seattle adopted some of the procedures included in the proposed bill, including explicit city council authorization to buy a drone, and the adoption of operations and record-keeping procedures.

The Legislature’s hesitancy had little to do with sensitivity toward privacy and civil liberties.

In 2012, Congress authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to designate six areas around the United States for testing the integration of drones into national air space. The former Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake is among the sites that have been submitted for consideration.

Also, Boeing Co. and subsidiary Insitu Inc. make some of the most advanced drone aircraft, and company officials have warned that state-imposed controls could affect the viability of Washington as a manufacturing location. Insitu provides one-quarter of all payroll in Klickitat County.

For its part, law enforcement representatives testified that HB 1771, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Matt Shea, was unnecessarily restrictive; imposing constraints beyond those applied to other types of surveillance. And drones, they said, could help speedily track down fleeing criminals when other means cannot.

Seminars next week at North Idaho College will dwell on the many positives of drone technology for fighting forest fires and patrolling remote areas, for example. The virtues are real, but you don’t have to suffer from black helicopter paranoia to appreciate the risks to personal security and privacy.

As they proliferate – and they will – drones will also create a new hazard for pilots.

The decision by Washington lawmakers to set aside HB 1771 was the correct one, whatever the motive. But the bill should be revived and passed once the competing demands for privacy, security and economic vitality have been reconciled.

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