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Originally published December 31, 2012 at 5:52 PM | Page modified December 31, 2012 at 5:51 PM

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Op-ed: Protect privacy as Seattle Police drones take off

If society is not vigilant, new technology can outpace public policy, according to guest columnists Shankar Narayan and Doug Honig.

Special to The Seattle Times

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LOOKING for a growth industry in a down economy? Drones, best known as tools for going after alleged terrorists abroad, are coming in force to American skies. They already are deployed to patrol our nation’s borders. And the Federal Aviation Administration is predicting that there could be as many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles over domestic skies by the end of the decade, according to a report in the Washington Times.

We should keep in mind the likely development of America’s drone industry as Seattle considers policies for law enforcement use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

If society is not vigilant, new technology can outpace public policy.

The drones of the not-too-distant future may be far different from the toylike vehicles the Seattle Police Department is showing off today. The public is understandably nervous over drones’ game-changing implications for privacy and generalized surveillance by the government.

What was once the stuff of science fiction is becoming big business. Drones have their own trade group, the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International, which includes some of the nation’s leading aerospace companies. For its part, Congress now has “drone caucuses” in both the Senate and House.

The Seattle Police Department points out that the two drones it has obtained thus far — under a grant from the Department of Homeland Security — are small and have limited capabilities. Their battery life is less than 10 minutes, and they can’t carry more than 35 ounces. Under FAA guidelines, they cannot hover below 400 feet and cannot be used above crowds.

But with drones emerging as a cornerstone of our military strategy, research is proceeding apace. We can bet that drones will become more powerful, more versatile and less expensive. Advances in artificial intelligence will enhance their ability to carry out increasingly invasive surveillance. We can expect drones that will carry high-power zoom lenses, employ thermal imaging and use radar to penetrate the walls of homes and businesses. With facial recognition software, they will be able to recognize and track individuals. And the Air Force is testing a system called “Gorgon Stare,” which uses multiple cameras to look at a whole city.

Unmanned aerial vehicles make it easier than ever for law enforcement to monitor people and locations. If police drones become commonplace, government will be tempted to seek new missions beyond the initial deployment for search-and-rescue and crime scene work.

And if data captured by drones is not immediately deleted, it would become a massive trove of video, audio, and other data potentially available to anyone who seeks it under public disclosure laws. Although cameras have proliferated in our society, drones are different both because of their surveillance capabilities and the fact that it is the government doing the recording. In a democratic society, people should be able to go about their daily activities without their movements, activities, and associations being recorded and tracked by the government. Americans do not want to live in a “surveillance society.”

In light of these concerns, the Seattle Police Department has drafted guidelines for its use of drones and is seeking public input. But police department policies alone are not sufficient. We need regulations enacted by our elected officials and enshrined in law to ensure that police drones are not used for political surveillance, nor do they carry weapons.

The Seattle City Council needs to specify when and how drones are to be used — only for legitimate law enforcement purposes when no other mechanism will do — and provide that information collected by drones not be stored unless directly related to criminal activity. In nearly all circumstances, there should be a warrant requirement for collection of data by drones. There should be an auditing process to ensure the law has teeth.

Seattle has a chance to become a national leader in establishing reasonable, privacy-protective regulations for law enforcement use of drones. It’s an opportunity our leaders should seize without delay.

Shankar Narayan is legislative director and Doug Honig is Communications Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

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