State lawmakers are again working to limit government and police use of drones after their most recent attempt was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
At least two proposals this year would require government agencies to get a search warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, to conduct surveillance on individuals.
One such measure was introduced Friday by Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, who sponsored the drone legislation that Inslee vetoed last year.
Taylor said his primary concern is protecting people’s privacy.
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“I don’t believe we want to grant blanket mass surveillance approval to anybody,” Taylor said Thursday.
Under Taylor’s new bill, a search warrant would be required for government agencies to use a drone to record or photograph someone as part of an investigation, or to collect data about their private property or personal vehicle.
Exceptions would be made in emergencies, such as raging wildfires or police chases, and for agencies to conduct land surveys or other operations that don’t target people.
House Bill 1639 also would require the Legislature to approve all drone purchases by state agencies; city or county councils would have to approve government drone purchases at the local level.
Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said drone technology is evolving so rapidly that it’s urgent that the Legislature set boundaries for how government agencies can use the unmanned aircraft.
“They’re getting smaller, quicker and more mobile, so it’s possible you may not even be aware you’re under surveillance,” Honig said. “There needs to be a protection of privacy, and protections to make sure drones are not used for general surveillance on individuals when there’s no evidence they’ve ever done anything wrong.”
The ACLU is supporting Taylor’s bill, which the organization also helped draft.
Yet the measure still includes language that would limit public disclosure and retention of personal information collected by government drones, which was part of why Inslee vetoed Taylor’s previous legislation in 2014.
When vetoing the bill last year, Inslee announced a 15-month moratorium on state agency use of drones, which he said would give the Legislature time to craft new regulations.
Taylor said he altered his proposal this year so that it would no longer require personal data, recordings or photos collected by drones to be destroyed as quickly. He said his intent with the new bill is to let agencies keep images and recordings of people for about a year if they might be needed as part of an investigation.
Still, mandating the destruction of records collected by public agencies — at any point in time — worries groups such as Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which lobbies on behalf of newspapers throughout the state.
Rowland Thompson, the newspaper group’s executive director, said drone surveillance data should remain available for disclosure under the state’s Public Records Act, just like any other records held by a public agency.
“Just because this technology came along, it doesn’t change the rules,” Thompson said. “The rules should stay the same.”
Another proposal being developed by the state Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) wouldn’t require information gathered by drones to be destroyed, said Sandy Mullins, Inslee’s senior policy adviser for government operations and public safety.
However, the measure would treat drone surveillance differently than surveillance by police officers, which Mullins called “a pretty significant shift in law.”
Under the OCIO’s plan, police or regulatory agencies would have to get a search warrant before deploying a drone to watch or record an individual for an extended period of time when the person is on private property.
Mullins said officials are still playing with what length of time should trigger the warrant requirement, but most likely it would apply when sending a drone to circle a person’s home for an hour or more within a specified period.
A police officer conducting similar surveillance of someone’s home from a patrol car on a public street corner wouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions, she said.
“Law enforcement would argue that’s unreasonable,” Mullins said.
Mullins said the bill being drafted by OCIO will incorporate some of the feedback from a drones task force that Inslee convened last year.
She said she expects the legislation will be introduced within the next two weeks.