Peeping Tom Police Drones Can Legally Make You An Unwilling Porn Star

in Daily New Bite by

[FULL DISCLOSURE: The author lives about an hour from where this story takes place, has worked there, and has a brother who was a state legislator representing this district]

Here in Washington state, we have a long history of accountability. Washington has one of the strongest public records laws in the country, dating back 45 years. But what happens when the information gathered into the public record becomes too personal, and the methods for gathering it become too invasive?

Police in the city of Kent, Washington, a suburb directly adjacent to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, have asked their city council to approve the purchase of two police drones, as well as some remote surveillance cameras that could be moved around town and operated from inside the police department.

Assistant Police Chief Rafael Padilla says that the drones would not be used to follow people or in “covert actions,” the term now used for undercover work.

No areas where someone would have an expectation of privacy, like viewing into their cars or into their houses or even into their businesses. These would not be covert.

Even the manufacturer’s website touts their devices’ ability to follow suspects and “catch them in the act,” with footage then available through an internet connection. Like all online transmissions, this of course leads to questions of whether the devices can be hacked.

“…playing back recorded video from any computer via internet.”

And with four cameras mounted on each one, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t at least inadvertently catch footage that would then become available through the state’s Public Records Act which might not be suitable for public viewing. Like, say, you and your partner getting intimate. Padilla says the department is still “working out policy and protocol” regarding the new equipment, suggesting that even if and when they are approved, they still have no governing regulations in place for them.

“Full transparency now” is the cry of many advocates, but what if the video and pictures taken by surveillance cameras, drones, or even body cameras — now in use in Kent’s parent city, Seattle — happen to depict lawful, private acts by bystanders, or footage inside someone’s home or business? Most existing regulations, like the ones Padilla says his department are still working on, are internal police guidelines, and not codified into law. Police can use their own discretion as to when the cameras might be rolling.

Those concerns are exactly what Shanker Narayan, the Technology and Liberty Project Director at ACLU Washington, has in mind when he brings up the fact that if police have suspicion of unlawful activity, they can get a warrant. In the case of body cameras, Narayan has argued in the past, footage could be subject to “commandeering by the federal government.”

What are the implications, then, for crime victims, immigrants, or even someone whose friend is caught on camera overdosing on drugs? Will they be subject to unwarranted legal action that previously would have gone unnoticed? More importantly, will they still talk to the police if they know they’re being filmed? Blanket coverage is great if you’re a Seattle Seahawks fan, but not so much if you’re a fan of privacy.

Not pictured: Anyone committing any crimes, except the QB who threw this interception

A year ago, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee, most recently famous for his high-profile fights with the Trump administration over immigration policies, signed a privacy law regarding the use of body cameras. The new law prevents, for example, footage inside medical facilities of patients receiving treatment, and it limits how much and what kind of footage can be requested by the public. The Public Records Act, after all, is from a time of ink and paper, and it would quickly become a Herculean effort to field requests for the terabytes of data that will surely be produced.

Will new technology precipitate new legislation? It’s hard to imagine it won’t. Even the word “drone” has negative connotations almost any way you use it.

But all of this is fancy talk around a central fear: Are we living out the dystopian future of George Orwell’s 1984?


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