The Seattle City Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology Committee discussed and heard heated public comment on an ordinance Wednesday afternoon designed to set guidelines on the Seattle Police Department's controversial plans for the use of unmanned drones. If approved, C.B. 117707 would adopt City policies "regarding the acquisition and operation of unmanned aircraft systems," and establish a new chapter on the use of drones in the Seattle Municipal Code.
Vocalizing the concerns of many, Stearns referred to SPD's drones as a "possible gateway" to "big-time surveillance." Meanwhile, committee member Nick Licata was visibly bothered by the drones he views as being pushed by private industry, and was weary of the unintended problems that might arise from less-than-crystal-clear legislation regulating them. Fellow committee member Mike O'Brien drew cheers from those on hand when he mentioned the possibly of returning the drones, or scrapping the ordinance altogether and crafting one prohibiting SPD from using them.
Bruce Harrell, the chairman of the committee, introduced the legislation. On one hand, Harrell seems pleased to be able to champion an effort that, if passed, will be somewhat groundbreaking - making Seattle the first city to pass drone legislation that protects the public's civil liberties. On the other hand, Harrell and his fellow committee members are obviously perturbed by the predicament they've been handed. SPD acquired the drones in 2010 via a Department of Homeland Security grant, without council permission or public knowledge of the purchase. In most ways, Harrell's legislation is simply cleaning up that mess.
As currently written, the legislation would prohibit SPD from acquiring any more drones than the two it already has without authorization from the council.
The legislation states:
- SPD's drones can't be used to conduct "general surveillance," and must instead be directed at a specified target or suspect as authorized by a warrant or the permission of a police lieutenant in certain situations.
- The drones can be used only for data collection, and can't be outfitted with weaponry.
- While the drones are to be used only for data collection on a specific target, what's termed "inadvertent data collection" is not a violation if the drones are operated in "good faith." (An example of inadvertent data collection provided during the meeting involved using the unmanned aircraft to scope a fire in a high rise and happening upon a brutal assault in a separate area of the building.)
- If inadvertent data is collected, it can only be used in situations with "significant risk of personal injury or property damage." In these cases, the data can be used by law enforcement for "any purpose consistent with current law."
- SPD can only use facial recognition technology or biometric matching to confirm the identity of a specific target identified in the warrant or authorization.
- SPD cannot use the drones at night, over heavily populated areas, or over large assemblies of people - like sporting events or protests.
- Though a warrant is required for use of the drones most of the time, in situations deemed "exigent circumstances" - like hostage situations, search and rescues, bomb threats, and hot pursuits of a felony suspect - the drones can be deployed with authorization from an SPD lieutenant. The drones can also be used without a warrant for traffic accidents and training exercises.
- The data collected by SPD drones must be deleted within 30 days, unless it's believed to be evidence of criminal activity.
- SPD is required to submit to compliance audits and provide a written report of their usage of the drones each year - delivered to the Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology Committee on March 1. These audits and reports will be available to the public.
- The compliance or failure to comply with the restrictions created by the ordinance shall not affect the admissibility of video recordings at trial, and no cause of action may be based on an authorized under the drone guidelines.
The biggest item of contention for those on hand seemed to center on the admissibility of evidence collected inadvertently through the use of SPD's drones. Stearns told the committee that inadvertent data - no matter what the circumstance - should not be collected, and should not be allowed as evidence in court.
"I really struggle with this," Harrell said of the legislation's provisions related to the inadvertent collection of data, expressing that he's sympathetic to concerns related to possible civil liberties violations, but also doesn't necessarily want to prohibit law enforcement from using compelling evidence that could be used to prosecute a heinous criminal (should such a situation occur).
"This ordinance is very good. It limits what we can do," said SPD Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh, who also had a seat at the table. "It's very limiting to protect people's privacy, but still allows us to use a tool that could be helpful.
"It is a tool. It's not a tool that's going to be out every day," McDonagh said of the drones. "We know that. It is not something that we want to use quickly."
Based on yesterday's committee hearing, a vote on the SPD drone legislation probably won't be coming quickly either. Several items within the proposal were flagged for likely reworking - including refining the definition of exigent circumstances and tightening rules related the inadvertent collection of data. The discussion is expected to continue when the committee reconvenes in two weeks.
"We're certainly not in a position to pass anything today," said Harrell at the conclusion of Wednesday's meeting.
Truer words have never been spoken.