Drone bill needs Inslee’s promised overhaul

There’s a name for politicians willing to buck opposition and take unpopular stands they know are right: leaders. Gov. Jay Inslee showed leadership last week when he vetoed a misguided anti-drone bill.

The measure he killed Friday had passed the Legislature with rare bipartisan support: 46-1 in the Senate and 77-21 in the House. It had been sold as a safeguard against intrusive surveillance. How could anyone oppose the protection of privacy?

But the bill had a distinctly paranoid flavor. It reflected a curious double standard: Missions routinely carried out by manned helicopters become sinister when done with unmanned helicopters.

The measure would have forbidden state agencies with regulatory enforcement responsibilities from buying drones except by an act of the Legislature. This would apply to agencies no more secretive than the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources and others charged with managing our waterways, forests and fields.

Drones can actually have broad and beneficial uses.

Used in tandem with the traffic flow cameras already mounted along our highways, they might make it easier to pinpoint the fleeing vehicle after an Amber alert, for example.

They would make it infinitely safer to inspect power lines and transmission towers. They could deliver emergency medical supplies to people stranded by disasters. They could help environmental agencies monitor the health of forests. With their cameras and heat sensors, they could have helped search for survivors of the Oso mudslide.

The biggest problem with the drone bill was the one Inslee identified. Under the guise of protecting privacy, it threatened to give government agencies a broad new exemption from public disclosure.

Imagine, for example, a group of protesters accusing riot police of using excessive force against them at a demonstration.

While the bill paid contradictory lip service to open government, it included a blanket ban on releasing any drone-captured images of any identifiable individual. Including protesters. If an unmanned vehicle photographed the scuffles, law enforcement would have had the perfect excuse for not releasing the images: “It’s against the law.”

Forbidding the release of information would also have kept citizens from seeing what the government was doing with the drones themselves.

Inslee now plans to gather agencies, lawmakers, civil libertarians, the aerospace industry and others to craft a new bill that would allow the development of this promising technology while preserving Washington’s traditionally strong protections of privacy.

This time around, let’s aim for a more rational approach.