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Originally published April 20, 2012 at 10:07 PM | Page modified April 20, 2012 at 11:01 PM

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Eye-in-sky SPD drones stir privacy concerns

The Federal Aviation Administration's approval of a license for the Seattle Police Department to operate unmanned aerial drones should spark debate about privacy, public policy and the use of technology in law enforcement, according to the ACLU.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle Police Department's recent federal approval to use drones as an eye-in-the-sky should spark a discussion among city leaders about privacy and the use of technology in law enforcement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The department is among dozens of law-enforcement agencies, academic institutions and other agencies that were recently given approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The FAA approval was granted after the president signed a law in February that compelled the agency to plan for safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015.

Seattle police declined Friday to talk about how the department intends to use drones, saying it was just now training operators. However, the department has earlier said possible uses could include search-and-rescue operations, natural disasters and investigations of unusual crime scenes.

Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh told KOMO-TV last year that the department will exercise caution in using the two helicopter-style drones it has purchased.

"We will be careful to have policy in place to make sure that, one, the system isn't abused, and when it is deployed it's used for the lawful purpose it's intended," he said.

Whatever the department's plans for the small aircraft, they are likely to spark concerns over privacy.

In December, the ACLU published a report on domestic drones calling for new protections, saying current laws are "not strong enough to ensure that the technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values."

Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said the use of drones by police should prompt Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council to draft new public policy.

"The ACLU supports the use of technology to help government accomplish its basic missions, and drones can be useful," Honig said. "At the same time, the use of drones can really change people's relationship with their government. ... So, if the city of Seattle is going to go ahead and deploy drones, leaders need to develop clear and transparent guidelines for their use."

Specifically, he said, there should be policy on what kind of information can be collected, who can collect it, how the information can be used and how long it will be kept.

In addition, he said, there needs to be periodic audits to make sure policy is followed.

A spokesman for McGinn said Friday the mayor didn't want to "get ahead" of Seattle police in responding to media questions about how drones would be used. He referred questions to the department.

City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, did not return a phone call.

Drones come in a variety of sizes, ranging from large aircraft with 116-foot wingspans to tiny craft that can weigh less than an ounce. Under the new FAA rules, civilian drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, stay below an altitude of 400 feet and remain within sight of their operators.

The public is most familiar with military drones, which have been used to track and kill terrorists in the Middle East and Asia.

According to the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, uses for civilian drones can include monitoring livestock, aerial photography and surveillance.

The sheriff's department in Montgomery County, Texas, has used a $300,000, 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone to aid its SWAT team. The drone has a high-powered video camera and an infrared camera that can spot a person's thermal image in the dark.

"Public-safety agencies are beginning to see this as an invaluable tool for them, just as the car was an improvement over the horse and the single-shot pistol was improved upon by the six-shooter," Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel told The Associated Press.

According to Melanie Hinton of the trade association, the most common uses of drones by law enforcement are in search-and-rescue missions, SWAT deployments and traffic monitoring.

She said that when people are reported missing in bad weather conditions, there is often a point at which officials have to call off a search using conventional aircraft.

"With drones, weather doesn't matter. You can still fly," she said.

Hinton said a missing child was recently found in Colorado with the aid of a camera-equipped aerial drone.

She said there's no reason for people to fear drones.

"All of the technology is already being used," Hinton said. "Drones just do all the dull, dirty, difficult and dangerous work that people do, and they do it at a fraction of the cost."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal is included in this report.

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