"Before this city buys any [more] surveillance equipment or drones, [we're saying] they cannot do this without prior council approval," explained Seattle City Council member Nick Licata before the council unanimously approved new legislation governing how and when the city can use and operate surveillance equipment or ariel unmanned drones.
The legislation comes after the city council members were surprised to learn that our police department had acquired several aerial drones via a federal grant, and Seattle residents unpleasantly discovered 30 surveillance cameras being erected along Seattle's waterways—most notably, Alki beach.
Despite council assurances that the legislation would promote transparency and public awareness of new surveillance systems, the bills' vote was followed 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," Licata said, noting that Seattle is the first government body in the country to pass legislation mandating transparency in drone surveillance. The measure requires the Seattle Police Department (or any other drone-hungry city department) to get council approval before purchasing aerial drones. Furthermore, it requires drone-hungry departments to adopt written protocols detailing how departments will retain, access, and store any data obtained through the surveillance equipment.
"I think people have a fundamental misunderstanding of this legislation," said council member Harrell as boos popcorned the chamber and people shouted "Don't vote for it!"
Earlier today, the ACLU of Washington urged the council to delay the drone vote until an auditing process was written into the legislation. "In order for the proposed ordinance to be effective, it must have teeth," said ACLU-WA Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw in a statement. "An auditing process would involve having the city auditor examine relevant documentation and produce a report on how police have carried out the ordinance. The report would address whether the procedures of the ordinance have been followed, whether the deployment of the surveillance technology has accomplished the stated goal of acquiring it (e.g., if it is for crime fighting, is there evidence that it is reducing crime or helping to solve crimes), and whether surveillance activities have improperly invaded privacy."
The Seattle Human Rights Commission lobbied the council include in the legislation a provision that would allow private citizens to sue the city if violations or misuse of the drones occurred.
"I think these are good concerns," said Harrell, agreeing that the city's auditor should audit its use. "We need to be able to prove and have independently verified" that protocols are being followed.
Needless to say, though, the vote was not deferred, the council reasoning being that "before anything occurs, we need to have this law in place," Harrell said. "The intent is that we're going slow here, that we're stopping its use until we have privacy rights of all citizens in place."
His words were met with more boos from the crowd.
"We hear you," Harrell said patiently. "Loudly and clearly."