In/Flux: The Surveillance Edition

Police are tracking drivers, companies are tracking their customers and China's still stealing from, well, everyone. Some of the biggest local tech news this week involves surveillance.
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Police are tracking drivers, companies are tracking their customers and China's still stealing from, well, everyone. Some of the biggest local tech news this week involves surveillance.

According to the Washington State ACLU, records show the Seattle Police Department tracked the movements of 7.3 million vehicles between 2009 and 2012, using automatic license plate scanners. This activity was ostensibly to watch for vehicles involved in criminal activity. However, the state ACLU says that only about .1 percent of those vehicles met that description. The data on the other vehicles was collected nonetheless.

Last week the ACLU released a report showing police nationwide are tracking the movement of vehicles, then feeding that data into databases that kept tabs on the location of millions of Americans, sometimes stretching back years. Crosscut's Matt Fikse first reported on the issue back in January.

“In Seattle, we found an enormous amount volume of records being collected,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director at the Washington State ACLU. “Scanning licenses for criminal activity is legitimate. It’s the collection of all the other data we have a problem with, and you can see almost immediately if a scan is a hit…. This practice has likely only ballooned since the end of our study in 2012. The police are getting more scanners.”

Debelak said her organization plans to make a push on the issue during the state’s next legislative session.


Microsoft's Xbox One has faced criticism for including an always-on camera that would effectively surveil customers' living rooms; one that processes everything said nearby and detects facial expressions, heart rates and much else. So it stands to bear that the company's reputation would benefit from avoiding any further Big Brother vibes. Therefore, when the tech giant got some extra attention in the NSA scandal last week, they were quick to put on their privacy activist hat.

“The Constitution itself is suffering,” Microsoft said in an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday, calling for the government to increase transparency around data collection efforts. This was the first attempt by a tech company to directly target the Obama administration on the issue. The next day the company signed another letter calling for the same thing, this time along with 62 other companies and civil liberties groups.

The letters followed revelations that Microsoft was one of the most compliant participants in government surveillance programs. The Guardian reports that the company provided the U.S. government with blanket access to email accounts, cloud storage, Skype and other products, and “collaborated closely” to help them snoop on users. Microsoft disputes the charges, and their letter requests permission to clear the issue up.


Before the NSA scandal popped on our collective radar, Chinese hackers were the big story in cyber security. Their attempts to steal information from U.S. companies, citizens, and others were a steady focus of news coverage. Articles theorized they were attempting to infiltrate every aspect of U.S. society.

Last week the issue returned to the spotlight, with reports that hackers (mostly from China) were targeting American universities with millions of attacks every week, and attempting to implant tracking bugs in professors’ laptops.  Kirk Bailey, the Chief Information Security Officer at University of Washington, confirmed to Crosscut that the university is one of those targets, with “regular attempts to hack us from all over the world.” Bailey wouldn’t specify the extent to which UW was successful in preventing these attempts, or if specific departments have been targeted.


With every passing day, real-world retail and its impending demise is the subject of more discussion. As Amazon, eBay and others move toward same-day delivery of products, there’s certainly reason to question its future form. But while some companies, like Barnes and Noble, are without a doubt doomed, not everyone’s out of ideas.

Nordstrom’s ran an experiment earlier this year, collecting data on how people moved through their stores using their smartphone wi-fi signals: How long did men look at jeans vs. women? Which direction did people walk upon entering the store? The idea was to understand how they shopped in order to better tailor stores to shoppers' needs. The New York Times ran a story on the practice last week, as well as other efforts by “brick and mortar” retail to compete with Amazon. Needless to say, it piqued some interest in the practice.

“This experiment ended in May, and for the most part, customer feedback was ‘What is this?’” Nordstrom’s spokeswoman Tara Darrow told us. “We’ve definitely been facing a lot of confusion about the program since the report, but there were signs at every entrance that informed customers we were doing this. Everything was transparent. The intent was to measure how people shopped.”

Darrow said the info can be used to modify staffing and product placement in stores, but the experiment is on hold. It is, nonetheless part of an effort to “look for opportunities” to make the store more compelling to customers.

Tech Bytes from Elsewhere

Tis the Season: A comprehensive map of available fruit trees in Seattle. Happy hunting.

Anti-Shark Technology:  But can it stand up to a Sharknado?

Virtual Venice: Following their treks to the world’s greatest mountains and canyons, Google Street View conquers Italy’s city without streets.

Cyber Smog: What would the world look like if you could see wi-fi signals? A NASA alumni takes a crack at the question, and the result’s pretty trippy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at