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National News

February 8, 2013

Seattle mayor scraps controversial drone program



But the proposed use of drones by police drew “tremendous, widespread concern among the general public,” according to Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. When police introduced the program during a public presentation last fall, officers were shouted down by opponents who feared misuse.

Honig said Thursday the ACLU was pleased with McGinn’s action.

“It’s a wise decision,” he said. “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”

But Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, criticized McGinn for taking “the easy way out.”

“It’s harder to define a policy where, in rare circumstances, (drones) could be useful,” said Harrell, who is running for mayor against McGinn. “We could have been a model for other cities to follow.”

Harrell had sponsored the pending council legislation that he hoped would balance the usefulness of the technology with privacy concerns.

The proposed ordinance discussed Wednesday would have banned the use of drones for general surveillance or for flights over open-air assemblies. It also would have required police to obtain a warrant before using drones for all but emergency circumstances, such as situations involving hostages, search-and-rescue operations, the pursuit of armed felons, bomb threats and the detection of “hot spots” in fires, or for the collection of traffic data.

City Councilmember Tim Burgess, another mayoral candidate, said McGinn’s cancellation of the program provides the city with an opportunity to reassess the grant money given to the city for homeland security.

But he went further, questioning the Police Department’s recent installation of 30 surveillance cameras along the city’s shoreline, from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens. The project is funded by a $5 million federal grant aimed at increasing security at the Port of Seattle and improving the city’s ability to respond to hazards and emergencies.

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