- Malcolm Smith
- That's one of the many access points for the Seattle Police Department’s wireless mesh network, which can detect “rogue devices” (such as your laptop or cell phone) and are attached to light poles around downtown Seattle. They were purchased and powered up without much public discussion, then reported on in newspapers, and then promptly powered down.
The timing is shrewd: Right now, the city council is officially collecting public input about what the city's budget priorities should be in 2015, including a budget workshop tonight at the Youngstown Cultural Center. (The Seattle Privacy Coalition plans to attend and hand out fact sheets about surveillance-tech companies.) The SPC, and its partners in the Seattle Human Rights Commission, are bringing some beyond-the-wonkosphere urgency to what might otherwise have been a relatively sleepy process.
Organizing an official board to think specifically about new legislation from a privacy and surveillance point of view makes a hell of a lot of sense. As the letter argues, the city has already burned up significant time, money, and public trust over projects that get started and then shut down because of confusion about what the city's privacy and surveillance standards should be.
A few examples: the surveillance cameras in Cal Anderson Park that got installed and then removed (at a total cost of $145,800, according to the SPC), the Seattle Police Department drones (which were grounded and are now sitting on a shelf since the manufacturer wouldn't take them back), and the wireless mesh network (it was powered up, reported on, then promptly powered down).
More important is the principle of the thing—surveillance technology (at least to the extent that we're now seeing it) is a new policy vector and local governments should be nimble and able to respond to public issues as they arise. The city has a responsibility to figure out a way of grappling with this new issue that's complicating legal, political, and social life.
Is there a comparable example in another city that the SPC can point to?
"I don’t think we have found an example of a body like this in the states," David Robinson of the SPC wrote in an email, "but we have examples from Canada and Australia. We are unfortunately on the bleeding edge of progress." The Department of Homeland Security has been handing out grants to cities for surveillance technologies since 9/11, leaving questions about whether and how to use it up to local government—if we get this right, it could become a model for cities around the United States.
The SPC has already shown what kinds of research it wants and expects from such a group by producing a fact sheet on the company ShotSpotter, which produces devices that "hear" and triangulate gunshots. That sounds benign, but SPC's research turned up evidence of how fervently the company lobbies public officials (allegedly even breaking the law in the city of Oakland), how eager Seattle's city council and police department are to be lobbied, the other potential surveillance capabilities of the devices, and a string of ShotSpotter's disappointed customers from California to New Jersey.
Robinson says the budget implications range from volunteers working with minimal staff support (the city's other task forces typically have a staff member assigned to them, part-time) to a salaried, full-time privacy and surveillance "czar."
And the SPC suspects its proposal will get some traction on the council. "The biggest boost to our plans for a board came a couple of months ago during the discussion of the facial recognition software that SPD is buying with DHS grant money," Robinson wrote. "Though the council approved this, several of them guiltily announced after the vote that they supported a privacy board (Clark, Harrell, O’Brien). Sawant voted against the SPD measure, we’ve talked with her staff, and we expect her to be supportive." (Harrell's office, which has shown a special interest in surveillance and privacy, has not yet responded to a request for comment.)
What about the mayor?
"I really have no idea," Robinson wrote, "though he did at one point say off-handedly that the 'port security' cameras might never get turned on."
All the more reason to have a task force that can think about the implications of new surveillance policies before the laws get passed and the money gets spent.