Eye-in-the- Sky Drones: Will Seattle Set Satisfactory Safeguards?

Friday, May 4, 2012

A week ago, on a Friday afternoon, a reporter called us with news that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to employ two unmanned aerial drones it had purchased. City officials declined to comment.

Did the ACLU have anything to say? You bet! Police drones may have valuable uses, but they also provide an unprecedented ability for the government to engage in surveillance of the activities of law-abiding people. We called for the mayor and city council to develop clear and transparent policies to safeguard privacy and free speech rights, and for public dialogue about the use of police drones over Seattle’s skies.

The dialogue quickly began. “Eye-in-sky SPD drones stir privacy concerns” proclaimed the top front-page article in the next morning’s Seattle Times. Garnering 337 online responses, it became the paper’s most commented upon story of the weekend. And the local Fox TV affiliate cited the national ACLU’s report, “Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance,” and its warning that our nation’s current privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values. A contrite assistant police chief appeared before the Seattle City Council this week to assure city leaders and the public that the drones would not be deployed until written policies for their use are in place. He promised that police would work with the ACLU and others in the community to draft them.

We believe the elected city officials, not just the police department, need to take the lead in safeguarding our privacy. The ACLU is calling for the city to specify what kind of information can be collected, who can collect it, how the information can be used, and how long it can be kept. And we want an auditing process to make sure the policies are followed. After revelations of widespread police abuses, Seattle in 1979 became the nation’s first city to enact a strong law curbing police spying on lawful free speech activities. Our Police Investigations Ordinance prohibits law enforcement from maintaining files on the political activities of individuals and groups without suspicion of criminal activity. Now the ACLU-WA is pressing the city’s officials to show similar leadership – by acting to ensure that police drones are not used to engage in intrusive surveillance expeditions that do not respect the privacy of Americans.