Inslee vetoes drone bill, cites privacy issue

Governor calls for a 15-month moratorium on agencies using unmanned aircraft except in emergencies

melissa.santos@thenewstribune.comApril 5, 2014 

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation Friday that would have regulated government use of drones in Washington state.

Inslee also announced Friday that he will prevent state agencies under his control from buying or using the unmanned aircraft for surveillance during the next 15 months.

The moratorium on drone use by state agencies will give the Legislature more time to craft new regulations, Inslee said.

“We will protect personal privacy until legislators have another chance next year,” Inslee said.

House Bill 2789 would have required a search warrant for law enforcement agencies to use drone surveillance, except in emergency situations when someone is in danger of getting hurt.

Inslee said he vetoed the bill partly because he was worried it would restrict the public’s access to data collected by the government — a concern that a newspaper lobby group also raised.

The vetoed bill contains provisions that would have prevented government agencies from disclosing personal information collected through drone surveillance. It described personal information as “all information … that describes, locates, or indexes anything about a person.”

“This would bar the public from essentially any information that in any way could be considered identifiable to any individual,” Inslee said. “That’s a major, major carve-out in our public disclosure rules.”

The bill also would have required legislative approval before state agencies could buy and use drones for police work or code enforcement. And a local governing body — such as a city council or county council — would have had to approve drone use by its police or sheriff’s department.

Inslee said he remains concerned about the need to protect citizens’ privacy and establish rules to govern drone surveillance.

Inslee’s drone-use moratorium would apply to state agencies that fall under the executive branch, such as the Department of Transportation and the State Patrol, but not to agencies run by independently elected officials, such as the Commissioner of Public Lands.

Exceptions could be made in emergency situations, Inslee said.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said he was disappointed that Inslee vetoed the drone legislation, which he said “came out very bipartisan, with a lot of support.”

The bill passed the House 77-21 and the Senate 46-1 earlier this year.

“When you have emerging technologies, you do your best work and try to address the concerns,” said Braun, who voted for House Bill 2789 in the Senate.

“A lot of work went into this,” Braun said. “I hate to see us go back clear to zero, but it looks like that’s what we’re doing.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington had lobbied in support of the bill, saying that unregulated use of drones could threaten citizens’ right to privacy.

Shankar Narayan, an ACLU-WA lobbyist, said Friday that he thinks Inslee’s moratorium is insufficient to prevent state agencies’ use of drones. Narayan said he thinks they could buy the drones for emergency use and later deploy them without oversight.

“We are now going to have another period of time where we have the Wild West, where we have no restrictions,” Narayan said.

Inslee told reporters that local governments wouldn’t be covered by his 15-month moratorium on drone use, but he’s asking police departments and sheriffs to also abstain from the practice.

Recently, a newspaper lobby group and several newspaper editorial boards urged Inslee to veto the drone bill, saying it was too broad and would negatively affect access to public records.

The measure would have directed government agencies to keep records of each time they use a drone. But agencies would have needed to destroy surveillance data collected by drones — either 30 days after the information is no longer needed in court, or within 10 days of gathering it if it was collected by mistake.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said those provisions would have limited the public’s ability to know how government agencies are using — and potentially abusing — drone technology.

“That’s really when you’re going to look at it the most, is when something goes wrong,” Thompson said.

The next time the Legislature convenes, lawmakers could override Inslee’s veto of the drone bill with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

But Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he thinks that would be unlikely. The last time the Legislature successfully voted to override a gubernatorial veto was in 1998.

“Probably the most likely thing is the Legislature will work on it again in 2015,” Padden said Friday.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 @melissasantos1

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