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Originally published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 6:00 PM

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Spy gear needs public scrutiny first

New surveillance gadgets, like the drones purchased by Seattle police and then axed by the mayor, might stand a better chance of public acceptance if the city first allowed some meaningful discussion of the plans.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Seattle’s surveillance drones weren’t killed off because the robot dragonflies seem ripped from a dystopian Philip K. Dick novel. Or because Seattle is anti-police. Or because it’s an election year (although all these surely played their part).

The drones got the ax last week for one overriding reason: Because they were sprung on us.

Who could have guessed the public might be queasy that its Police Department is acquiring military-inspired surveillance technologies? With little discussion first, or drafting of rules for how they might be used?

“The issue in the end was not this new technology,” says Doug Honig of the Seattle office of the ACLU. “The issue is government power and trust in government.”

It goes way beyond drones.

Last month residents noticed the city is installing 30 surveillance cameras along the waterfront, from Alki through downtown to Golden Gardens. The premise, as with the drones, is perfectly reasonable at first blush: to safeguard the Port of Seattle and other maritime spots from natural disaster or sabotage.

Except that this project was never vetted with the public, either. When it was approved by the Seattle City Council last May, it was discussed for less than two minutes before being approved unanimously. The agenda that day made no mention of a waterfront-surveillance project, only the “authorizing of an application for allocation of funds” from a grant “relating to security from terrorism.”

City Council members then had no questions. But they do now. Such as: Why can the cameras be rotated 360 degrees if they are just to watch the water? What are the legal limits to the use of the images recorded? Is the camera network going to spread? And so on.

Most Seattleites would certainly support some level of surveillance, especially at vulnerable facilities such as the Port. But if you’re buying technology that can monitor peoples’ lives and track their comings and goings, then putting it up right in their neighborhoods, you have to assure them beforehand. Not just with words, but guidelines. Earn some trust. Before you start.

That this is not happening is a pattern. It’s due, I suspect, to how these drone and camera projects come to life. There’s an entire industry of what could be called “soft-military” companies selling these gadgets to cities, financed by federal post-9/11 security grants. Congress encourages this, to the point that there’s a congressional “drone caucus,” with 60 U.S. House members, dedicated to pushing drones and other surveillance devices for domestic purposes. It’s sort of a next-gen military-industrial complex.

Bottom line: It’s irresistible for cities. It’s free money for high-tech cop stuff. How about we worry what the public thinks later?

“It’s mission creep,” Honig said. “There’s always a commendable purpose for each one. But no meaningful public discussion of where does the adoption of each new surveillance technology take us?”

Maybe that’s starting. The same day Seattle liberals shouted down the drones, the tea-party wing of the state Legislature was introducing a bill, H.B. 1771, to regulate their use. The bill warns that “drones do present a substantial privacy risk, potentially contrary to the strong privacy protections” of the state Constitution.

This is one of those issues where the far left and right meet on the back side. The more eyes the merrier. Because the more the government watches, the more important it becomes to watch them back.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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