On March 18, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved legislation governing how and when the city can use and operate surveillance equipment or aerial unmanned drones. But despite council assurances that the legislation would promote transparency and public awareness of new surveillance systems, the bill's vote was accompanied by angry chanting from the crowd.
"This isn't perfect legislation, but it's far ahead of the game of any other place in the country right now," explained the measure's sponsor, Nick Licata. It requires any drone-hungry city agency—e.g., the Seattle Police Department—to get council approval before purchasing new surveillance equipment. It also requires departments to adopt written protocols detailing how they will retain, access, and store data obtained through surveillance.
Earlier this year, council members were surprised to learn that the SPD had acquired several aerial drones through a federal grant, and Seattle residents discovered 30 surveillance cameras being erected along Seattle's waterways—most notably, along Alki Beach.
The ACLU of Washington urged the council to delay the vote until an auditing process was written into the legislation—specifically, that the city auditor oversee and report on all drone and surveillance use. "In order for the proposed ordinance to be effective, it must have teeth," said ACLU-WA deputy director Jennifer Shaw in a statement. Instead, the council agreed to revisit the legislation in a year and decide whether the auditor component was necessary.