Seattle Police Backtrack on Their Mass Surveillance Plans

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The Seattle Police Department did something amazing this week: After word got out that the department had created a citywide surveillance network without input from community members or a policy to govern the system's use, the police department agreed to deactivate the whole thing. 

Capable of geo-locating smart phone and computer users across the city, Seattle acquired its "mesh network" the same way other cities got theirs: the Department of Homeland Security helped pay for it, a private contractor built it, and the city council approved it without public debate. Then The Stranger ran a lengthy exposé in which a member of the Seattle PD responded to a question about rules governing the use of the mesh network by saying, "[We're] not comfortable answering policy questions when we do not yet have a policy." (The Stranger also published a list of questions the Seattle PD refused to answer.) Roughly a week later, Seattle PD Sgt. Sean Whitcomb told the alternative weekly, "The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there's an opportunity for vigorous public debate."

That's a big victory for privacy advocates who worry about the potential for abuse with these kinds of massive surveillance systems. Plenty of cities have already demonstrated that they don't see "vigorous public debate" as a requisite for implementing such systems.

It could also be a temporary victory. In mid-July, Privacy activists in Oakland, California, convinced the city council there to hold off on further funding for its Domain Awareness Center, at least until a vigorous public debate had occurred and a policy governing the technology had been established. Two weeks later, the council unanimously decided to continue funding the DAC, promising to address privacy concerns eventually. While legislators felt like they'd done all they needed to, privacy advocates felt shafted. 

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"What they did is approve a vast surveillance center without understanding the implications," the ACLU's Linda Lye told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The privacy policies would be drafted only after the center is built. At that point, what opportunity will there be for to determine if the safeguards are sufficient?"

Seattleites could face a similar conundrum down the road. After hearing what advocates have to say, the city could still defer to law enforcement, and a surveillance technology industry that's become increasingly good at selling its systems as harmless supplements to good old fashioned police work. 

But then, Seattle privacy advocates have a record of winning disputes like this one. In February of this year, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn killed the Seattle PD's drone program and returned both aircraft to their manufacturer. That decision followed a public hearing in which opposition to the drones was overwhelming. 

"The drone issue has dramatized the issue of government surveillance like no other issue," says ACLU Washington spokesperson Doug Honig. "You can talk about surveillance and people are concerned, but when drones came up, it really gave people a concrete image they found scary. It's opened the door to people thinking about other types of surveillance."

Top image: Screenshot of Seattle mesh network receiver courtesy KIRO 7 TV.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.