ACLU concerned about Seattle police aerial drones

SEATTLE — The Seattle Police Department’s recent federal approval to use drones for aerial monitoring should spark a discussion among city leaders about privacy and law enforcement’s use of technology, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington says.

Documents obtained by the advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation say the department is among dozens of law-enforcement agencies, academic institutions and other agencies that were recently given approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones.

The FAA approval was granted after President Barack Obama signed a law in February that compelled the agency to plan for safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015.

The Seattle Times reported the police department declined Friday to talk about how the department intends to use drones, saying it was just now training operators. However, the department has earlier said possible uses could include search-and-rescue operations, natural disasters and investigations of unusual crime scenes.

Whatever the department’s plans for the small aircraft, they are likely to raise privacy concerns.

In December, the ACLU published a report on domestic drones calling for new protections, saying current laws are “not strong enough to ensure that the technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values.”

Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said the use of drones by police should prompt Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council to draft new public policy.

“The ACLU supports the use of technology to help government accomplish its basic missions, and drones can be useful,” Honig said. “At the same time, the use of drones can really change people’s relationship with their government. … So, if the city of Seattle is going to go ahead and deploy drones, leaders need to develop clear and transparent guidelines for their use.”

A spokesman for McGinn said the mayor didn’t want to “get ahead” of Seattle police in responding to questions about how drones would be used.

Drones come in a variety of sizes, ranging from large aircraft with 116-foot wingspans to tiny craft that can weigh less than an ounce. Under the new FAA rules, civilian drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, stay below an altitude of 400 feet and remain within sight of their operators.

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