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. The news came not from city officials, but via the fruits of a public records request by our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
City officials declined to comment. Did the ACLU have anything to say? You bet.
ACLU of Washington executive director Kathleen Taylor called for the mayor and city council to develop clear and transparent policies to safeguard privacy and free speech rights, declaring, “We need to have a public dialogue about the use of police drones over Seattle’s skies.”
The dialogue was quick in coming. “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.
With drones—and the privacy questions they raise—thrown into the public spotlight in that way, 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.
The ACLU is calling for the city to specify—through a legally binding ordinance—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 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 Intelligence 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. As far as we know Seattle is the first city to take this step, and we hope we can be a leader for other cities and towns around the country.
Update (May 7)
The Seattle Times has come out with an editorial calling for "formal oversight" over drones. The piece concludes, "The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington raises good points and questions about usage restrictions, image-retention limits, and regular audits and reviews of drones as a law-enforcement tool. Give Seattle police the latitude to use drones, but define their limitations via city ordinance."