Our Voice: Legislature should rewrite seriously flawed drone bill

March 20, 2014 

With many things in life, the devil is in the details.

Something may sound worthy on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it's obviously problematic.

Countless pieces of legislation -- at all levels of government -- follow that pattern, with glaring alarms tucked into seemingly useful laws.

One such example is House Bill 2789, a mashup of several measures attempting to deal with the use of drones. It is contrary to existing statues and the state Constitution.

It was a lapse in judgment for the Legislature to pass this hodgepodge of a bill. We're hoping Gov. Jay Inslee will veto it because this poorly written law would restrict the ability of many state agencies to do their jobs.

Of course, many people fear the government will use drones to spy on their daily activities. Unmanned little planes and helicopters flying overhead with cameras rolling could certainly create a level of paranoia about government intrusion into our private lives.

We get why lawmakers would jump at the chance to tell constituents they are working hard to protect their privacy. But we don't think most of them read through the details of the jumble of bills consolidated into HB 2789.

The legislation does not address parameters for drones used by private business or for recreation, but does take aim at government and law enforcement uses.

State agencies and law enforcement would have to get approval from the Legislature to purchase a drone. Then they might not be able to use the information they gathered.

The law prohibits the release of any footage that discloses private information about a person, and defines private information as all information that describes, locates, or indexes "anything" about a person.

If a state agency were to use a helicopter to take photos of damage from a forest fire, the images would be a public record. But if a drone were to do the same job and happened to pick up an image of a backpacker in the process, those images might be withheld from the public because of privacy concerns.

We understand why our lawmakers may not understand the full content of the bills. They're confusing and contradictory.

In one sentence, the law seems to make information gathered by drones outside the scope of public records law. But then it goes on to say that there is no intent to change the requirements for the release of information to the public.

It seems entirely odd that a manned plane or helicopter could gather information that is part of the public domain but that the same exact footage obtained by a drone could be excluded.

One longtime lobbyist who has read many poorly written bills said the drone legislation package ranks with the worst of them, using the phrase "incoherent mashup" to describe it.

Some of valid uses we envision for drones would be potentially prohibited by the legislation, like enforcement of pollution laws, forest management and other instances where a drone would have the best access to data.

We understand privacy is important. We also understand the public's right to information and the need for law enforcement to have access to the best tools available. That it would hamper our ability to get you the full story in some cases also is of great concern.

When legitimate interests conflict, a thoughtful approach is required to find an appropriate balance. HB 2789 is the polar opposite of a thoughtful approach. The Legislature needs to try again, and come up with a bill that protects privacy, allows regulators and police agencies to do their jobs and doesn't put undue and unneeded restrictions on public records.

We hope Gov. Inslee's advisors understand the consequences of this ill-advised legislation and fully brief him on the concerns. It needs his veto.

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