Governor should veto overreaching drone bill

Caught up in the frenzy of concerns about privacy and drones, state legislators have sent a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk that could have unforeseen effects on public access to government documents. Inslee should veto it.

The issues about the use of drones by state and local agencies are too complicated to address without more study. Instead, the governor should appoint a task force composed of stakeholders to recommend a clear and more comprehensive proposal that would address all future uses of drones, from private to regulatory and law enforcement.

It’s not as if this is an issue requiring immediate action. State and local governments have no plans in the near future to use drones, but this highly restrictive bill threatens their ability to someday take advantage of an important emerging technology.

There’s no reason to rush through rules that could benefit from more input than went into HB 2789. It reads like a parade of horribles from far-left civil libertarians and far-right anti-government types.

This legislation would require any regulatory or law enforcement agency to get the Legislature’s approval through an appropriation in order to “procure” an Extraordinary Sensing Device (ESD) attached to an unmanned aircraft system, or drone. And in a putting-the-cart-before-the-horse move, none could be used until the Legislature comes up with standards for them.

When might that be? And wouldn’t that be best left to the kind of task force that would propose regulations for drone use?

The most worrisome aspect of HB 2789, however, is its possible implications for public access. It would prevent disclosure of “personal information” that “describes, locates or indexes anything about a person.”

Anything? If this language is codified into state law, it could provide a dangerous precedent for future legislation. It might sound innocuous, but such an overly encompassing definition could have far-reaching implications for public access to information collected by government.

Indeed, government agencies could invoke the possibility of disclosing any kind of vague “personal information” as a reason not to provide public access to documents. Why give officials that kind of cover?

The legislation could affect aerospace companies who might play important roles in developing drone technology. That won’t happen here if such a heavy-handed law is in place.

Let’s take the time to write clear rules that balance legitimate privacy concerns with open government and the potential cost-saving uses of drone technology.