- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The Washington state House of Representatives passed a series of bills Wednesday to strengthen privacy rights against emerging incursions from surveillance technology and drone aircraft.

Under the bills sent to the Senate by wide, bipartisan margins, it would become a state misdemeanor and civil liability for a private citizen to use a drone to peep on another person, and police would need specific legislative permission to buy new drones or other types of advanced surveillance technology.

And a piece of technology already in use by police to sweep up data from cellphone signals would require a warrant for any future usage.

“Technology today, we can take advantage of it to monitor wildlife or fight wildfires, but technology can also take advantage of us,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and the House’s Public Safety committee chairman, who voted for all three measures.

Much of the privacy-rights discussion centered on unmanned aircraft, sales of which have exploded in recent months. Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, chief sponsor of the bill to outlaw using drones for voyeuristic purposes, said private sales of drones had exceeded 1,500 per week during the run-up to Christmas, and he cited recent allegations of invasive drone use in Normandy Park, Washington, and northern Seattle as reasons a stronger law is needed.

“But for passage of this bill, there will be a drone peeping through every skylight,” Morris said.

His bill passed 94-3, but that is no guarantee it will clear the Senate. A similar bill passed the House 92-6 in 2014 but stalled in the Legislature’s other chamber.

House members also came down Wednesday against unsupervised police use of “Stingray” technology, which The News Tribune of Tacoma reported last summer had been employed by Tacoma police. The machinery imitates a cell tower signal and extracts data from cellphones that latch onto its signal, in some cases capturing data for authorities to parse later. Unanimously, the House voted 97-0 to require a warrant to use the devices going forward.

“I have serious concerns about information collected from third parties when these devices are used,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee.

The other privacy measure Taylor brought to the House floor Wednesday evening drew more heated debate over the limitations it would put on authorities. The bill, which passed 73-25, would require agencies to get Legislative approval to buy drones and other high-tech surveillance devices. It also would force an agency to get a warrant for many non-emergency uses of the technology.

Several legislators said they liked the bill’s protections of privacy against unfettered government surveillance, but others said they believed it tied authorities’ hands too much. Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said the bill would allow the Department of Natural Resources to monitor illegal dumping via drone but forbid the DNR from using the drone to figure out who is behind the dumping. Existing law offers more useful safeguards, he said.

“If someone feels like a public agency has stepped out of line, they can go to court,” said Hansen, who voted against the bill.

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