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

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.

What this all means is that the network forms the potential "backbone" for connecting any type of surveillance equipment throughout the city. Taken to the extreme, privacy advocates worry that bit by bit, without any major public decision to do so, Seattle will end up with an extensive network of night vision- and facial recognition-enabled cameras linked by sophisticated software that allows local and federal — law enforcement agencies to track citizens on streets, parks and other public places, as well as in stores, hotels, restaurants, buses, trains, the airport, ferry terminals — everywhere, and in real time.

3. Who has access to the video and how do we prevent abuse?

Questions abound about who will have access to all this surveillance video, how long the information will be stored and what protections will be in place to guard against misuse or abuse of the system. The American Civil Liberties Union supports City Councilmember Licata's proposed regulation of surveillance technology, praising his bill for recognizing that "there needs to be transparency, public discussion, and policies in place before the City obtains surveillance technology," says Doug Honig of the ACLU of Washington. "Notably, the proposal includes a data retention policy and an access log — both are important protections for privacy. We'd like to see added a private right of action for when government violates the law — so there is a real consequence for abuses."

4. What about the rest of the grant money?

The SPD's surveillance project was underwritten by a $4,874,705 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security. The contract for the surveillance camera and network program is for $2,686,931. (That part of the project is itemized as "Chief of Police Project P1000" in the city budget.) That leaves $2,187,774 not yet publicly accounted for.

5. Where's the Port or the Coast Guard?

For a project billed primarily as a "Port Security" effort, connections to the Port of Seattle appear minimal; in recent presentation materials, the SPD said "there are preliminary discussions underway with the Port of Seattle to share access to the cameras as a law enforcement partner on the water." If the primary rationale for the project is port security, wouldn't the Port of Seattle or the Coast Guard have been the lead agency? Wouldn't the bulk of surveillance cameras be located there? Or was the surveillance project driven more by the romance of new technology and the availability of federal money to the city?

6. Why does the SPD need its own network?

Seattle's surveillance system will be superseded by a federal one, already in the works, that promises stronger controls. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 authorized what's known as "FirstNet," the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet, funded through the auction of radio spectrum and governed by an independent board, seeks to create one national civilian data network for emergency and first responders. A former city official with detailed knowledge of both the SPD project and the national effort says that, ultimately, FirstNet will "do 99% of what the SPD is trying to do;" that is, provide basic communications infrastructure for emergency responders that streamlines inter-agency communication.

7. Can the SPD surveillance project be stopped?

The city contract contains all the customary termination clauses, including one for terminating at the city's convenience. The project's affordable price — a few million bucks — says a lot about the advancements in technology. But it also makes it possible — if not easy — for the city to pull the plug. Mayor McGinn did just that recently when he killed the SPD's aerial drone program.

The cost of eliminating the surveillance program would be more than a rounding error in the city's budget, but not impossible to manage. But the cost of keeping or killing the surveillance project isn’t the point. Judging from public interest in and reaction to the program, the concerns are about what kind of city Seattle is, and wants to be. The next public hearing on the SPD project is on Tuesday, March 19th, 7 p.m at the Belltown Community Center (415 Bell Street). More meetings will be scheduled.

There’s a lot to talk about.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.