The Seattle Police Department's recent federal approval to use drones as an eye-in-the-sky should spark a discussion among city leaders about privacy and the use of technology in law enforcement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
The department is among dozens of law-enforcement agencies, academic institutions and other agencies that were recently given approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The FAA approval was granted after the president signed a law in February that compelled the agency to plan for safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015.
Seattle police declined Friday to talk about how the department intends to use drones, saying it was just now training operators. However, the department has earlier said possible uses could include search-and-rescue operations, natural disasters and investigations of unusual crime scenes.
Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh told KOMO-TV last year that the department will exercise caution in using the two helicopter-style drones it has purchased.
"We will be careful to have policy in place to make sure that, one, the system isn't abused, and when it is deployed it's used for the lawful purpose it's intended," he said.
Whatever the department's plans for the small aircraft, they are likely to spark concerns over privacy.
In December, the ACLU published a report on domestic drones calling for new protections, saying current laws are "not strong enough to ensure that the technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values."
Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said the use of drones by police should prompt Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council to draft new public policy.
"The ACLU supports the use of technology to help government accomplish its basic missions, and drones can be useful," Honig said. "At the same time, the use of drones can really change people's relationship with their government. ... So, if the city of Seattle is going to go ahead and deploy drones, leaders need to develop clear and transparent guidelines for their use."
Specifically, he said, there should be policy on what kind of information can be collected, who can collect it, how the information can be used and how long it will be kept.
In addition, he said, there needs to be periodic audits to make sure policy is followed.
A spokesman for McGinn said Friday the mayor didn't want to "get ahead" of Seattle police in responding to media questions about how drones would be used. He referred questions to the department.