Back when she was first elected to city council, mainstream political wisdom grumbled that Kshama Sawant would be a chronic outsider, on the fringe, perhaps an obstructionist, but in any case incapable of working with the rest of the grown-ups in the room.
We can dive into her voting record on another day, but for now let's pause to note that yesterday was her first standalone "no" vote on a piece of full-council legislation—against council bill 118043 (née council bill 117996, but it was renamed for procedural reasons) which authorizes the city to receive anti-terrorism funds from the Department of Homeland Security.
That may ring a bell—it's the same kind of legislation that authorized the Seattle Police Department to quietly purchase the drones, surveillance cameras, and wireless mesh network (aka the potential cell-phone tracking network) that caused such an uproar when the public finally found out about them.
Iterations of that legislation (to accept Homeland Security funding) have been passed repeatedly since 2003 without significant public debate. But the SPD's drones in 2012 and Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's domestic spying programs in 2013 have problematized the rubber-stamping.
Yesterday, Sawant explained her reasons for voting no:
This year's legislation, council member Bruce Harrell explained yesterday (here is a link to video of the proceedings), has some noncontroversial elements, such as training for emergency response and setting up ways to alert citizens when an emergency is imminent.
But the DHS funding will also buy facial-recognition technology for the SPD and help support our local fusion center—which is currently involved in a lawsuit over the US Army's recent spying on antiwar activists and the fusion center placing photos of activists in its "domestic terrorism" files.
Yesterday, council member Harrell said he was voting for the DHS-funding bill because the facial-recognition technology—aka the "booking comparison system"—would simply automate a process that is now manual: That is, it would set up a database of photos taken when suspects are booked into jail, allowing digitized cross-referencing to other photos and producing search "hits" instead of officers having to manually look through photographs to compare them.
Harrell noted that Doug Klunder at the ACLU had approved the bill and had "no objections to the policy as written."
Harrell also addressed the issue of "mission creep" (a technology initially bought for benign reasons being used for increasingly nefarious ones) by saying a "very specific software usage law" would allow the city to audit exactly which officers are using the technology and for what purposes.
But privacy advocates say the policy is too weak to prevent abuse and that mission creep is inevitable. The same software, they charge, can compare driver's-license photos, Facebook photos, pictures taken of people at political demonstrations, and so on.
For one example of potential abuse, activist Phil Mocek points to an incident review from the May Day protests in 2012—which he got his hands on via a public-records request—showing high-ranking SPD brass requesting:
Photographs and information pertaining to all known anarchists/criminals and previously arrested `Occupy' demonstrators (p 4)
Photographs of all known/suspected anarchists and persons previously arrested during the recent `Occupy' demonstrations (p 5)
These requests were made before the protests—in effect, using criminal-investigation tools for political profiling.
"I am concerned that facial recognition software will allow SPD staff who collect digital images of a group of people engaging in civil disobedience (e.g., by holding signs and engaging in 'pedestrian interference' or 'failure to disburse')," Mocek continues, thereby "identifying people whose biometric data have been entered into various SPD databases, including but not limited to that which SPD intends to use with the booking comparison system."
Flagging such people as troublemakers, he says, could lead to activists "being yanked from the crowd and arrested, then either prosecuted on trumped-up charges, or allowed to leave hours later without charge, well after their effectiveness as demonstrators has been neutralized."
Does the idea of cops pulling "known" activists out of a crowd—based on a photograph—to arrest them on trumped-up charges sound farfetched?
Consider the case of Phil Chinn, one of the local activists spied on by the US Army, who was on his way to a protest, pulled over by Washington State Patrol, and charged with a DUI even though his breathalyzer and blood tests came back clean.
Chinn settled out of court.