SPD event tonight and this week’s recommended #privacy reading

SPD event tonight:

Tonight at beautiful Golden Gardens, we’ll hear Seattle Police Department spokespeople and techies talk about the Port of Seattle surveillance cameras. If you can, please come: This is pretty interesting stuff.

Details: Golden Gardens Bathhouse, 8498 Seaview Pl. NW, Friday, May 24th at 7 p.m.

SPD also invites your e-mail comments or questions at cameraquestions@seattle.gov.

Seattle Privacy Coalition members have made it to each of the previous public meetings (at Alki and Belltown) and we plan to be there tonight.

This week in recommended reading

We don’t really mean to tell you to read Bruce Schneier every single time the man posts something, but we couldn’t resist sharing this very alarming article, which envisions all our devices, appliances, clothing, and other items tracking us and each other and reporting in: The Internet of Things.

Speaking of things that know where you are: From the opposite side of the country comes news of the Maine Senate voting to require police to get a warrant before engaging in location tracking of cell phones and other GPS-enabled devices in non-emergency situations.

We feel like we see articles almost every day that refer to new (or existing) programs and systems that gather and store data, such as ORCA and other transit cards, Smart Meters, and more.

Lately we’ve been seeing and using the term “Accidental Surveillance” to describe how, when they are all put together, these systems paint an alarmingly detailed picture of our lives and movements.

Here’s a piece by Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess that discusses how, starting April 1, owners of commercial and multifamily residential buildings of at least 20,000 square feet must report energy usage to the City on an annual basis. We’re all for saving energy, we just want to make sure privacy protection is part of the conversation: Tracking Building Energy Use.

Finally we saw that Woodinville plans to purchase surveillance cameras to fight crime, and is also considering the sort of automated license plate reader (ALPR) system in use currently in Seattle. Props to Mayor Bernie Talmas, the lone no vote, who was reported in The Seattle Times as voting no, “saying he was concerned about privacy issues and possible liability to the city.”

And this seems like a good moment to note that Seattle Privacy Coalition does not oppose data gathering systems, but we also are concerned about privacy issues and possible liability to our fair city, and would love to see oversight in place to review department protocols.





Utilities and privacy: Smart meters in Seattle

Today the Seattle City Council Energy and Environment committee held a special meeting to gather public feedback on Seattle City Light’s new strategic plan. You can see video of the meeting and public comment here, including commentary on “smart meters”.

The strategic plan calls for replacing City Light’s nearly 400,000 manually read meters with technologically up-to-date digital meters (Advanced Metering Infrastructure/AMI)–also known as “smart meters”.

The advantages listed by the plan include flexible billing and quicker outage notices, user-friendly access to the information, quickly and cheaply, on the City Light website, and improved responsiveness at the Call Center.

These are excellent and well-intended reasons for moving toward smart meters.

Likewise, the city’s Climate Action Plan, which also calls for smart meters, is designed to move the city to carbon neutrality by 2050. In this context the advantage is presented as the idea that feedback on utilities use will help customers conserve energy by understanding their own use patterns more accurately and being able to compare them with averages and ideals. More good motives.

Unfortunately, smart meters present their own privacy and security problems. According to a February 2012 Congressional Research Service Report entitled Smart Meters: Privacy and Cybersecurity, the Department of Energy reported that by matching data with known appliance load signatures, smart meters will be able to reveal:

  • People’s daily schedules,
  • Their appliances and electronic equipment, and
  • Whether they use certain types of medical equipment.

Utilities will have the data to discern the behavior of occupants in their home over a period of time, an unprecedented amount of government visibility into private homes. They will also be under budget and lobbying pressure to sell that data to third parties

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) cites a list of potential privacy consequences of Smart Grid Systems including identity theft, activity censorship, profiling, tracking behavior of renters/leasers, and real-time surveillance.

Smart meters are another example of Seattle’s need for effective privacy oversight.




Recommended Reading: Bruce Schneier on Transparency and Accountability

If you missed it in The Atlantic or on his own blog, please take a moment to check out this short but compelling piece by security expert Bruce Schneier: Tranparency and Accountability. Schneier talks about almost everything we’re concerned about when it comes to the law enforcement side of data collection.

He notes that local police departments are pushed by the FBI and Homeland Security to invest in new technologies, some of them already shown to be ineffective. And he notes that sometimes lobbyists get involved.

Certainly with the purchase of drones and deployment of an extensive surveillance camera network in Seattle without public input, we’ve seen exactly what he’s talking about.

Schneier calls for oversight with teeth, and that’s exactly what we’re asking for. But we don’t want to single out law enforcement unduly–they’re just easy because they’re so visible. But Please see the Smart Meters post for an example of another a proposed investment in data gathering that cries out for public oversight.



Municipal Data Oversight: Chief Privacy Officer or Oversight Board — or both?

Today we got some excellent feedback from friends in another privacy-rights organization, which was that our proposed oversight board has a great goal but might be hampered by not having the teeth to insure that policy changes occur based on its feedback. As an alternative, our friend notes that a new position that’s becoming commonplace in the private sector and slowly gaining popularity in the public sector is the Chief Privacy Officer.

Certainly we’ve seen this toothiness problem with other oversight boards — their recommendations are not always followed by policymakers. Usually it’s simply because many good ideas require more revenue than public institutions have, but of course there may also be other forces at work internally.

As one of several members of Seattle Privacy who has worked in the public sector, I (Jan) am personally hung up on the idea of having people who are not dependent on the City for their livelihoods involved in reviewing protocols, policy, and security plans, simply because I’ve seen how over time as a public employee you can become very cautious about what you’re willing to write down. To me this is an ironic example of the chilling and self-censoring effect of surveillance, even though in this case it’s a necessary part of having transparent institutions. But with awareness of public disclosure requests hanging over everyone’s head all the time, no one ever writes down anything controversial or daring for fear that it will show up on the front page of “The Stranger”, and then you’ll be fired.

Which to me just shows that even when the persons doing the watching are the public and the press, it’s creepy and scary and it changes you to feel constantly watched and judged. It’s a burden that public employees willingly accept, for which they are to be appreciated and admired. But I’d hate to see our whole society living like that.

We’re adding the role of Chief Privacy Officer to our list of things to discuss. It might be exactly the right way to go, although, like any new position, it would require scaring up funding in the city budget, never easily accomplished.

Meanwhile, we’ve also met with staff in the office of Council President Sally Clark. It’s extremely heartening to live in a city where public officials are accessible, interested, and forward-looking on technology questions.