By Rachel Carlson
On a city visit a few years back, I remember a public works director lighting up with glee as he described the new remote water meter readers his city had just installed. “It’s so easy!” he gushed.
Gone were the days of climbing through snow banks, dealing with hostile customers who didn’t want their meter read, and dodging all types of wildlife—from homeowners’ dogs and cats, to bees and flies. The miracle of radio waves now allowed him to read everyone’s meter remotely from a city van. He was like a kid who got exactly what he wanted for his birthday.
Staying in line with laws
When a work problem has troubled you for many years, and a new, labor-saving technological solution lands in your lap to solve it, it’s hard not to go for it. But new technology comes at a price—and not just the sticker-shock showroom floor kind. Cities need to be careful when implementing new technologies to make sure they comport with the law (and sometimes the law hasn’t been written yet).
There are several cool technologies on the horizon for cities, but there are also legal issues you should think about before implementing them.
Drones have been used for military purposes for years and are becoming a more affordable technology for cities to use. Fire departments are using drones to survey the extent of wildfires. Police departments are using drones to conduct search-and-rescue operations in remote areas, and to locate suspects.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announced a new online registration system for recreational unmanned aircraft systems, often called “drones.” However, cities should know that drones used for governmental purposes have a different registration procedure.
Current FAA regulations will likely change in the near future to incorporate drones safely into U.S. airspace. Cities should watch for these new rules to make sure they are operating their drones in a legal manner.
Portable computer devices
Like drones, portable computer devices have been around for a while. What is new is that they are becoming cheaper, lighter, and easier to use. Therefore, city employees want to use them for a variety of outdoor field operations.
Unlike a traditional desk computer, a tablet or smartphone can easily be slung into a truck or glove compartment. Building inspectors can take pictures, make their reports, and send them out from the site using a mobile device.
Before using mobile computing devices, cities need to think through the data practices and privacy issues. Cities need to have a clear BYOD (bring your own device) policy if employees are using their own mobile devices for city business. And, if the city is providing the devices, it should have clear policies about personal, incidental use of the device by employees.
Finally, field devices need the same security as office computers. Nationally, situations where tablets and devices were lost or stolen have created costly data privacy breach lawsuits.
Police body-worn cameras have been in the news frequently over the past year. However, there is also a growing trend for non-police use of the cameras. For example, building inspectors in Florida are using the body cameras to record and narrate their walk-throughs of houses. Fire departments are also using the cameras to document training runs and at live fires to provide real-time footage of the blaze.
It is important that cities know what technology employees are deploying in the field. Some body-worn cameras have become so cheap that fire department or other field employees may deploy them without city knowledge. This can create an administrative headache for the city because data collected by the employee for employment purposes (regardless of who owns the device) is considered city data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Cities should consider policies prohibiting employees from self-deploying these types of technologies, and for storing and releasing the data collected on permitted devices.
Some of the equipment being deployed for police is pretty amazing: radar devices that can see through brick walls and detect breathing and movement; “stingrays” that can turn a suspect’s cell phone into a GPS; and small sensors that can sense and report gunshots all over the city.
All of these technologies have tremendous potential to prevent and combat crime and make officers’ jobs easier and safer. However, sometimes when a new technology emerges, it takes a while for the law to catch up. City councils should be aware of and approve all technology purchases police departments are making. In addition, city councils should be comfortable with the how and why of deploying new technologies.
Rachel Carlson is loss control manager with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1210.
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