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Balancing technology and privacy in new drone law

One of the issues before the task force: What is the definition of personal information that the state is trying to protect? Concern about privacy is often expressed in terms of what police can do with a drone. (AP Photo/File)
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When the owner of a Seattle highrise condo saw a drone outside her 26th floor window recently, she called 911. But there really isn’t much police can do. The state is trying to craft a law that allows drones for legitimate government use and still protects our privacy. It hasn’t been easy.

For a second straight session, drone legislation failed to become law. Last April, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill that won broad support in the House and Senate.

“He believed that more work needed to be done to develop a clear, regulatory structure,” said Nick Brown, the Governor’s chief counsel. “This bill is the first of its kind in the state and it’s important that we get it right.”

So, Brown kicked off the first meeting of the Governor’s drone task force Monday, charged with writing a new bill for next session. The lightning rod for the discussion is drones – but State Senator Marilyn Chase said it’s less about the technology and more about the collection of personal information.

“Citizens are concerned, not necessarily about the technology but about what happens to the information, and they’re worried about the files that are being accumulated on their personal lives,” explained Chase.

But Shankar Narayan, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there’s widespread public concern about drones. He considers them a game-changing technology and a test case, of sorts.

“I wouldn’t want to lose the focus on drones because I think it’s what the public is concerned about and certainly why we’re here at the table,” he said.

Also on the task force in Olympia is Mitch Barker, with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, who is alarmed that in the process of regulating drones, lawmakers will handcuff police, restricting an officer’s ability to collect evidence in public places.

“Our concern is once you start to make public areas, historic public areas private, it starts to impact a number of open view issues for law enforcement, from the air, from a tree, from a building next door, driving down a street, walking down a street. And we have a concern heading into this see-no-evil world,” said Barker.

Another issue before the task force: What is the definition of personal information that the state is trying to protect?

Concern about privacy is often expressed in terms of what police can do with a drone.

“Most people don’t know, precision agriculture is the number one use of these systems right now around the world,” said Erik Folkestad with Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “We don’t want to create legislation that would prevent our big ag community in Washington from using this technology for the right purpose.”

The state’s chief information officer, Michael Cockrill, said the drone task force must decide if it will rewrite the drone bill the governor vetoed, or start over. It has three more meetings scheduled, Aug. 11, Oct. 13 and Nov 10.

Until, and if a new bill meets his approval, the governor has imposed a ban on the purchase of drones by state executive agencies and he’s asking police chiefs and sheriffs to hold off on buying the technology as well.

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