Drones as crime-fighting tool need some restrictions

Before letting the drones take to the air, it is important to put policies in place to ensure that privacy rights are not violated.

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Technology plays an important role in fighting crime.

Everything from stun guns to bullet-proof jackets to GPS tracking have given law enforcement an edge.

But technology, if used inappropriately, can result in police violating constitutional rights.

GPS technology has been the subject of concern for several years now. A few cases have gone to court and the limits are being established on how far law enforcement can go to track a subject. The use of GPS has been limited by judges.

Yet, technology moves much faster than the court system. And that has made Seattle a new battleground for concerns about police usurping civil rights.

Seattle is one of the first police departments in the nation to receive permission from the federal government to start using drone aircraft.

Aerial drones can be as small as a hummingbird or as large as the combat Predators and Reapers being used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Seattle police are considering drones far smaller than a combat plane. It is looking at using a mini-helicopter -- the Draganflyer XG -- in its efforts to fight crime and keep the public safe. The Draganflyer carries cameras that can take still pictures, videos and infrared shots and it's operated with a hand-held controller.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that approved the use of drones, has some restrictions, but those are mostly about safety. It, for example, prohibits flights over large crowds.

But there is no FAA rule against using the mini-helicopter to take photos through the windows of a high-rise apartment complex on the prowl for some illegal activity.

The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned about possible abuses after it reviewed existing laws and policies. It determined they were inadequate to safeguard citizen privacy.

While the ACLU has a tendency to overreact at times, in this case its concerns are well founded.

And its suggestion to city officials in Seattle is equally sound. The ACLU has urged officials to craft strict and clear policies on what kind of information can be collected and how it can be used.

If the use of drones works well in Seattle -- it curbs crime while not violating civil rights -- it is likely police departments in cities such as Walla Walla might use them. Then the restrictions could be used as a model in those cities to ensure the right to privacy is maintained.

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