SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill Friday that would have restricted the use of unmanned aerial drones by state and local government and law-enforcement agencies in Washington state.
He said he will create a task force this month to examine the complex privacy issues around the use of drones with the goal of producing a new bill for the 2015 legislative session.
In the meantime, Inslee announced he’s imposing a moratorium for all executive-branch state agencies on the purchase or use of unmanned aircraft systems for the next 15 months.
He asked local police departments also to refrain from acquiring these devices for the same period, except for emergency purposes such as a natural disaster.
Inslee said the combination of the moratorium and the task force to further study the issue, “should satisfy the privacy rights and interests of people in the next few months” while also ensuring “a comprehensive bill next session.”
Unmanned aerial drones, typically small flying craft carrying high-resolution cameras and other sensor technologies, are now standard tools used by the military in war zones.
The technology has raised privacy concerns as it has become more widely available for police and civilian use.
“Drones are a game-changing technology,” said Shankar Narayan, Washington state legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “They make surveillance cheaper and easier. They make surveillance possible that is really all-pervasive.”
The bill would have required state and local government entities to get approval for purchase of drones and to have clear and publicly disclosed policies regulating their deployment.
In addition, while certain applications such as wildlife or environmental surveying and use in emergencies were exempted, the use of drones for surveillance would otherwise have required a search warrant issued by a court.
Inslee said he takes the right to privacy very seriously, but in vetoing the bill he cited “conflicting provisions” that could have restricted disclosure of information obtained by the use of drones.
“This could lead to shielding government uses of this technology from public disclosure,” Inslee said.
Supporters of the bill rejected that rationale. Narayan, of the ACLU, said the bill wouldn’t have changed existing public-disclosure laws.
Rep. David Taylor, a Republican from Central Washington who was the bill’s prime sponsor, said there was nothing in the bill “to expand or lessen an agency’s requirements” to comply with public-records laws.
Taylor said he’s disappointed at the veto though he welcomed Inslee’s moratorium.
He said local communities will need to be active to ensure their local police forces comply with Inslee’s request to also hold off on the use of drones.
Recalling that last year then-Mayor Mike McGinn pulled the plug on a Seattle Police Department drone program after a public outcry, Taylor cited the disclosure last month by interim Police Chief Harry Bailey that Seattle police still have not returned the two drones purchased with federal funds.
Also on Friday, Inslee vetoed a separate budget bill that would have eliminated the Life Science Discovery Fund, which uses money from the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement to finance health-related research programs.