Aligning drones and the law

Beware quick fixes, especially in the age of emerging technology.

The rule of unintended consequences is given expression in the impenetrable language of a bill, HB 2789, designed to regulate aerial drones (not to be confused with combat drones, the hunter-killers dispatched by the CIA to assassinate suspected terrorists.)

The name “drone” aggravates the problem, a word freighted by images of exploding vans and buzzing robots with X-ray vision. Message: These Ray Bradbury gizmos are terrifying.

The drone bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature and is headed to the governor for his signature or veto, focuses on the use of drones by state and local agencies, not hobbyists. The trouble, beyond its elastic definition of personal information, is transparency and public records. Media won’t be able to access drone videos made by law enforcement, much like it receives access to ground filming, airplane or helicopter video (read: just employ a drone if you’re concerned about media vetting.) The timeline for the “Mission Impossible” this-tape-will-self-destruct narrows from 30 days in some cases to 10 days in others. It makes it tough to bird-dog agency monkey business when evidence is in electronic heaven.

Ironically, the bill could prohibit the regulatory use of drones when it’s in the public interest, such as forestry management and enforcement of pollution standards. This isn’t proactive strategizing, it’s a premature solution in search of a problem.

The bill is rife with Orwellian contradictions. Section 13 reads that, “Personal information collected during the operation of an extraordinary sensing device authorized by and consistent with this subchapter may not be used, copied, or disclosed for any purpose after the conclusion of the operation, unless there is probable cause that the personal information is evidence of criminal activity.” It’s then followed by a line that mandates zero change in the status quo: “Nothing in this act is intended to expand or contract the obligations of an agency to disclose public records as provided in chapter 42.56 RCW.” To paraphrase “Alice in Wonderland,” it reads like uncommon nonsense.

Unfortunately, HB 2789 may become the law of the land, uncommon nonsense or no. Drones are a lightning rod; the potential for abuse is rampant. What is required is not ad hoc lawmaking, but a task force of agency staff and legislators to develop a manageable, constitutional solution with clear standards for law enforcement as well as regulation and private use. This may require separate statutes.

An easy call on a complex subject. Gov. Jay Inslee needs to veto HB 2789.

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