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Seattle's new waterfront cameras: The beginning of city-wide surveillance?

Digging into the paperwork for Seattle's waterfront surveillance system brings up questions about privacy and the growing scope of the project.
We see you

We see you Photo: Flickr User GreatBeyond

Camerahead event protesting use of cameras in Seattle's Cal Anderson Park

Camerahead event protesting use of cameras in Seattle's Cal Anderson Park Photo: Flickr User sparktography

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 11:27 p.m. Inappropriate

This does nothing to provide for public safety and has everything to do with tracking and controlling citizens as they go about their business. I would be very surprised if Seattle made SPD give it up, though they did away with the drones, so perhaps there's hope for them. Maybe.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

For all the billions spent by DHS (otherwise known as the Dept. of Bureaucratic Terrorism, DBT), the results are few and far between. The FBI has done a far better job of detecting terrorism.

Just because the money is available is not justification for spending it, particularly since this project is a direct attack on our privacy. Between transit cameras, private business cameras, and the existing port cameras (Shilshole for example) we are watched everywhere we go.

The Port has a fantastically expensive patrol boat, funded by the DBT. When I asked why such an expensive boat was needed, the answer was: Don't worry, it's paid for by Homeland Security. Sorry, it is still my tax money, as is this intrusive and ultimately useless project.

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 2:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for delving into this. We do not need this.

jhande

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 2:58 a.m. Inappropriate

The unaccounted for 2 million is disconcerting. That this has all happened "under the radar" makes the project suspect.

jhande

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

As a "Crosscut Investigation," this story provides no answers, contrary to what investigations are designed to do. Yes, where IS the rest of that grant money - did you ask anyone about that, and what's the answer? And why isn't the Port the primary benefactor - again, did you ask? And maybe SPD says the fusion center won't be linked - but what about later? Etc. etc. Nothing wrong with taking another week or two or however long is required to get these answers and truly investigate the topic.

Blackie

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Also they're putting in a live video downlink for a police helicopter and an augmented reality system. No FLIR on that platform, yet.

Downlink first, then FLIR install later? Seeing through shaded windows and walls is a 4th Amendment violation as I'm sure they're aware.

sparklee

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Some West Seattle residents who oppose the surveillance cams along Alki Beach have started a petition asking the city to take them down. The petition is at change.org at https://www.change.org/petitions/city-of-seattle-take-down-the-spd-surveillance-cameras It's just a start but the goal is to tell elected officials that people do not want these things watching them all the time. Please sign the petition and help spread the word.

AHoffman

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

"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."

Get that in writing.

sparklee

Posted Sun, Mar 17, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Even if we get it in writing then can un-write it anytime they want. Politicians leave a trail of broken and undone promises in their wake.

BarryM

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I have a question: how much privacy do you expect when you are on a public street? i think some people, like me, who come from small rural communities scratch our heads about an alleged right to privacy that extends out beyond our front doors and front yards. Where I come from if you did anything notable within a fifty mile radius of your home it would be widely known to friends and family within twenty four hours. The folks who wrote our constitution were probably not able to travel about their neighborhoods incognito. Would you rather have hundreds more 5,000 pound police cruisers patrolling the Port and Alki and other points of interest? anonymity may be an appealing characteristic of urban living but I don't think it's a cardinal virtue.

kieth

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 8:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Even in rural areas, Citizens do not expect to be monitored by Government. Constant monitoring, and watching, of Citizens by Government is treating a Citizen as a prisoner in an open air prison. Citizens never demanded the constant surveillance which seems to have attempted to be installed without Citizens' knowledge.

Citizens have a right to be left alone by Government. Constant monitoring, and surveillance of Citizens is not Government leaving Citizens alone.

Citizens do not need guards, or anonymous overseers.

Then the question becomes who are the guards, overseers? And, Who exactly is being guarded, and who exactly is being overseen?

jhande

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 11:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for the right on post.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 4:12 p.m. Inappropriate

"Crosscut Investigates"

Thanks for seeing the need. Undoubtedly you will improve with experience or die trying.

afreeman

Posted Fri, Mar 15, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

In "1984" Winston was monitored even in his dwelling (except, as I remember, in some very limited area); the horror of the story was that Winston was subject to punishment for what we would regard as normal human behavior. Punishment is no part of this story. jhande would have us keep information from being collected because of the risk that this information could be misused and lead, presumably, to prosecution and punishment. In other words, hamstring enforcement of even those laws that are generally perceived to be beneficial. In the meantime the benefits to security would be lost or possibly replaced by added human patrols which would certainly be more costly and probably more intrusive, not less. I think reducing the collection of information from public streets in the pursuit of protecting individual rights is an indirect and costly means of pursuing those rights. Fight the fights that are worth something.

kieth

Posted Mon, Mar 18, 4:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Freedom from being monitored by government is a fight worth fighting.

You want a security state, move to China. We don't need China style government in the United States.

Then you forget the potential for persecution of Citizens with this constant surveillance and monitoring. There are secret no-fly lists, terrorist watch lists, and who knows what else lists. Citizens are subject to warrantless break- ins and searches of their homes with no notification that it was done. Sneak and Peeks. We have the Patriot Act, NDAA, and Executive Orders, which have nullified much of the Bill of Rights. It is now "legal" for the "disappearing" of Citizens.

All of this, and now constant monitoring and surveillance. I think accepting all of this for "security" is pathetic, and cowardly. I have no trust in the politicians, and individuals in public entities, who wish to impose (in secret, of course) this Security State on the Citizenry, and I have nothing but contempt for those individuals who support the imposition of a Security State.

jhande

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