Rapid advances in technology are making all kinds of high-tech snooping easier and cheaper. As a result, the Seattle Police department and other local law enforcement agencies will soon be capable of sophisticated surveillance. The kind that allows them to track people suspected of criminal activity, and also record and analyze the everyday activities of law-abiding citizens.
In our post-September 11th world, security threats can be real. Nevertheless, the Seattle Police Department's new state-of-the-art, federally-funded "port security" surveillance network raises some serious questions about local government oversight of federally-funded police surveillance programs. The proposed network includes some 30 high resolution video cameras to monitor waterfront areas throughout the city, including some far from the port. The cameras, some of which are capable of thermal imaging, will be connected by a new dedicated wireless data network designed primarily for police use. The network will have links to local transit and other systems.
The ordinance authorizing the project was passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor in a largely perfunctory way. Pertinent details were left out of the council briefings. The new surveillance network was supposed to go live at the end of this month. But when news of the project broke in the West Seattle Blog, the resulting public outcry prompted Mayor McGinn to call for a "thorough public vetting" before deploying the system, and City Council veteran Nick Licata to draft new legislation to regulate it.
Washington’s ACLU and other groups have also chimed in, calling for transparency and public hearings before this kind of technology is deployed by local police. "In a democratic society, we treasure the ability to move about our streets without being under constant surveillance," wrote ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor in a letter to the mayor and City Council.
Meanwhile, Crosscut has been reviewing hundreds of pages of documents related to the project, including requests for proposals (RFP), contracts, technical specifications and communications with bidders. (You can see the documents here.) What we've learned raises more questions than answers about the implications of the proposed surveillance system for the city, its residents and its police department. We hope these and other questions will be addressed at upcoming public hearings on the program.
1. What's the role of the Feds?
There is conflicting information about how the Seattle surveillance system will connect to federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Contract documents show that the system will have "video output" and "control" linkages to the Washington State Fusion Center, one of a controversial network of state-level information clearinghouses designed to share "all crimes" information among local and federal agencies. SPD representatives made no reference to a Fusion Center link in presentations to the City Council. Mayoral spokesperson Aaron Pickus told Crosscut that "there was no plan to connect the Fusion Center. I'm told it was in the RFP as a possibility, but is currently not in discussion for an actual policy going forward." Yet a city contract manager told Crosscut that no change orders to the contract have yet been made. Things became clearer on this point at last night's public meeting at Alki when Paul McDonagh, the SPD's lead on the project, said that the system will not connect to the Fusion Center and that he was the person who made that decision.
2. What does this network really do?
Though the 30 waterway cameras drew the most attention, the program's new wireless data "mesh network" is the more likely game-changer when it comes to the future of surveillance in Seattle. Contract documents and SPD statements differ somewhat on this issue. The contract calls for installing 180 Aruba Networks' wireless transmitters and receivers (mWAPs) across the city. (The police department says 158 are being installed.) This so-called "mesh network" can send and receive large amounts of real-time data. For example, video and audio can move seamlessly from moving vehicles, such as police cars, to central points, such as police headquarters or the city's Emergency Operations Center. From these central points, the data can be shared with any number of partners or agencies. Live video transmission is a core feature of the system; SPD has already field-tested it. The surveillance network is technically capable of sending video directly to police cruisers. For now, SPD vehicles can't send live video back, but that could change with future upgrades to police equipment.
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