Governor should veto overreaching drone bill

The News TribuneMarch 20, 2014 

A real estate company uses a camera-equipped helicopter drone to shoot video of a home in Sacramento, Calif.

RANDY PENCH/SACRAMENTO BEE

Precious little got done in Olympia this past session on some truly important, much-needed issues, from transportation funding to teacher evaluations.

But somehow legislators found time to pass House Bill 2789, an overreaching mishmash of several measures. It would regulate drone use by state and local agencies in a way that could have unforeseen effects on public access to government documents.

The issues at stake are too complicated to address without more study, and Gov. Jay Inslee should veto HB 2789. What’s needed is 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.

Drones could be helpful for such uses as detecting unpermitted buildings and surveying public lands for illegal drug-growing operations. They have the potential to save taxpayer money at a time when governments are being tasked with making their operations leaner and more efficient.

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 all-encompassing definition could have far-reaching implications for public and media 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?

Also of concern is how the legislation could affect jobs and business. The Boeing Co. and related aerospace companies in the region could play important roles in developing drone technology, but the work might not happen here if such a heavy-handed law is in place.

There’s still time to consider laws regulating drone use. Let’s take it, and come up with clear rules that balance legitimate privacy concerns with open government and the potential cost-saving uses of drone technology.

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