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Sunday, September 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Editorial: Bill imposes pre-emptive limits on promising technology

It may not be long before domestic drones are hovering about collecting information and perhaps even delivering goods, but the implications for personal privacy, open government, and commercial and government endeavors are profound.

This is a clear case of technology flying ahead of rule-making.

Unfortunately, the Legislature just passed a confusing drone bill that could muck up efforts for clear standards for this and other technology – such as body cameras on police officers – and narrow the scope of public records law.

House Bill 2789 springs from the idea that government is too intrusive, and drone technology will only make it worse. Lawmakers even affixed fussy guidelines on the purchase of drones that serve as disincentives to do so.

But this is speculative lawmaking, because no state or local agency is using drones. Certainly, the potential for an unmanned craft snapping pictures outside windows is cause for concern. But there can be positive applications, and the bill ignores them.

Drones could be deployed to assess storm damage, assist farmers and ranchers, monitor borders, expose illegal marijuana operations, gather environmental data and much more. Drones could free up individuals for other, sometimes less dangerous tasks. Plus, there are potential commercial uses, such as deliveries.

The bill’s main focus is the use of drones to fight crime, but law enforcement agencies and prosecutors call it confusing. State agencies don’t know what to make of it, mostly because they haven’t given drones much thought yet.

The bill also has open government advocates concerned because of its expansive definition of “personal information,” which could be leveraged to shut off public information in general. As the city of Spokane devises guidelines for how to handle information gathered from police body cameras, it may find itself limited by this measure.

It’s also worrisome that the bill calls for the quick destruction of information gathered by drones. The goal is the protection of privacy, but this could also cover up government misuse.

The fiscal note from the attorney general’s office assumes more litigation over public records as a result of this bill. That’s unsurprising because open government was buried under civil liberty concerns.

The bill’s sponsors herald it as cutting-edge legislation, but we think Gov. Jay Inslee should ask, “What’s the rush?” We see no advantage in taking the lead in limiting technology, and we urge the governor to veto this bill.

Privacy issues are important, but they shouldn’t pre-empt a promising technology and narrow access to public information.

With so many questions unanswered and so many possible uses of drones unexplored, the wiser course would be a veto and a more thoughtful conversation.

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