House Bill 2789 is a measure to guide the state’s use of aerial surveillance devices, or drones. As the principal sponsors of the bill, a bipartisan proposal that was two years in the making, we would like the opportunity to clear up any misinformation or misunderstanding about the legislation.
We believe our proposal is a balanced approach allowing for the government’s use of drones while protecting the personal privacy of Washington’s citizens. It passed the House by a 77-21 vote and by a 46-1 vote in the Senate, enjoying support from across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and the 10th Amendment Center.
Some in the media seem to be concerned that the bill requires images captured by drones to be deleted if they contain personal information that is not related to criminal activity. The integrity of the Public Records Act is at issue, they claim, preventing them from learning about government abuses of this technology. This is an important issue, yet the criticism is a distraction from the strong core functions of the bill. Moreover, the bill was specifically amended to ensure that the Public Records Act is not eroded or compromised in any way.
House Bill 2789 is intended to guarantee transparency and accountability in public agencies’ use of extraordinary surveillance technologies like drones equipped with high-powered cameras. The bill requires state and local governments to allow for public input before they acquire drones, and to allow public input into policies and procedures for the use of drones. The measure requires detailed records and reports of drone use. If Gov. Jay Inslee signs this landmark bill, he will prove himself as a friend of open government, transparency, accountability and the protection of personal privacy.
Drones will be widely permitted as a cost-effective use of technology to respond to emergencies and disasters, to battle forest fires and to survey habitat and manage wildlife, along with many other public functions. Their use in criminal investigations, however, would require a warrant, which is already required for wiretaps or other surveillance technologies. The threshold issue is whether the public use of drones may be invading personal privacy, which this bill aims to protect in accordance with our state constitution’s strong guarantee of privacy under Article I, Section 7.
There will undoubtedly be unanswered questions about the government’s permissible uses of drones, which is why we amended the bill at the governor’s request to convene a task force to examine state agencies’ possible use of drones for regulatory enforcement. The task force will report its findings by the end of this year, giving the state enough time to develop guidelines for the use of drones before it begins to acquire and deploy them. In fact, the 2014 Supplemental Operating Budget already includes specific language authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to use unmanned aerial vehicles.
House Bill 2789 is a thoughtful and comprehensive measure achieved through tough compromises between advocates for civil liberties, law enforcement and private industry. It is the beginning, not the end, of efforts to allow for the use of important emerging technologies while ensuring the privacy of our state’s citizens.
The governor should sign this bill and defend the public’s right to know about how, when, where and why drone surveillance technology is being used by our government.