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Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Except for police, use of drones would need city’s OK

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Any city department that wants to use surveillance equipment, including drones and cameras, would have to get prior approval under legislation approved unanimously by the Seattle City Council on Monday.

Departments would have to spell out how they plan to use the devices, and the City Council would hold a public hearing on the proposal before giving its OK.

But the bill included a last-minute amendment that exempts the Police Department for temporary uses if the technology is part of a criminal investigation or approved under a search warrant. Privacy and civil-rights advocates objected that the change had not received public scrutiny and could weaken the bill.

“We have a real concern about that,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, after the council hearing. “It appears to lower the standards for when surveillance cameras can be used.”

Councilmember Nick Licata said Seattle is the first city in the country to require protocols for how surveillance equipment would be obtained and operated and how the data collected would be used.

“I think that this legislation strikes a balance that provides for safety without compromising the principles of our democracy,” Licata said.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and introduced the legislation, said the measure was a step toward transparency and accountability.

“As city leaders, we have to listen to both the police and citizens and come up with smart policies, restrictive policies,” he said.

Council members said they didn’t want a repeat of having approved federal grants only to later discover the grants were for aerial-surveillance drones or 30 stationary cameras the Police Department plans to operate around the city waterways as part of a port-security grant.

Mayor Mike McGinn in February ordered the drones returned after a public outcry about the potential for abuse and the lack of public notification. The new legislation means the police will have to outline planned uses of the port-security cameras, including how the data collected will be stored and accessed.

The hearing was interrupted several times by a small group of activists who shouted “No drones” and, when the legislation was adopted, chanted at council members, “Vote you out!”

One of the protesters, Karen Pooley, said after the hearing that she was afraid the Police Department would be writing its own rules for surveillance equipment and would be exempt from council oversight.

“There are no checks and balances,” she said.

Several residents testified that more government surveillance was coming and expressed concerns that it might not fit within the definitions of the legislation. The Police Department already has an automated system for reading license plates that records cars parked around town.

And Seattle City Light is adding an automated meter-reading system in 2015. Instead of checking meters in person six times a year, the automated system will collect data on household energy use every 15 minutes.

David Robinson, a Seattle technology professional who said he was concerned about the potential for surveillance on citizens, told the council that the federal government already was collecting “enormous amounts of data” under the rationale of enhanced security.

“We trust the police will protect us from criminals. We’re relying on you to protect our privacy rights,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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