Why we & the federal monitor agree: don’t trust SPD on surveillance tech

(Or: It’s Thanksgiving, and we are thankful for SPD’s federal monitor)

As reported in the Seattle Times, a draft report on the Seattle Police Department’s performance has been released by the federally appointed monitor, Merrick Bob, and it is not pretty. Say what you like about the federal government’s own violations of constitutional and human rights, the Department of Justice has served Seattle well by placing SPD under court review and holding it to an objective standard of policing. The excessive force — the unnecessary deaths, beatings, profilings, and daily humiliations — that compelled the DOJ to get involved must stop, and the SPD must fulfill its mission to serve and protect the people of Seattle.

As the city’s privacy-lovers already know, excessive force is not the only problem at SPD.  It was grant-chasing SPD leaders, particularly in the Information Technology division, who accepted money from the Department of Homeland Security  and deployed a city-wide surveillance of security cameras and radio links without public review or debate. In response to community apprehension (especially in West Seattle, where the first cameras went up), SPD’s leadership promised to manage the collected data responsibly and to allow public scrutiny of the images being captured. Additionally, Ordinance 124142, passed in March 2013, required SPD to submit a use policy within 30 days and gain council approval before turning on the system.

Eight months have passed since March, and no use policy has appeared. After people recently noticed that the system was turned on anyway, SPD promised to turn it off again. A legitimate question at this point would be: Who is running this circus?

The federal monitor’s report makes clear that SPD’s Information Technology division is a big part of the problem. There is not only lack of leadership from the City and inside SPD, there is, front and center, a simple lack of competence in IT.

The following excerpts from the report highlight IT’s inability to oversee large projects, plan new ones, manage its data, keep its machines working, and on and on. Remember, these are the people who sneaked in a public surveillance net, and then promised to manage its data in the public interest. In fact, they can’t even produce reliable data for Merrick Bobb. The failure of IT to manage (or even locate) its data plays directly into the SPD leadership’s conspiratorial, closed-door management style. Got a Freedom of Information Act request? Sorry, that information was lost. Got a federal consent decree? Sorry, we can’t really tell you what we are doing, because we don’t know, and we don’t want to know.

  • IT is incapable of providing responsive data to the federal monitor

The Department’s Information Technology (“IT”) leadership has given incorrect or incomplete information to the Monitor and Monitoring Team and has proven itself unable to tackle the management of projects of import or complexity relating to use of force and other areas encompassed by the Settlement Agreement. SPD’s existing capacities to track, analyze, and use data are, at best, weak. The data produced by the IT Department has been error-ridden and inadequate: The SPD simply does not have the data required to implement the Consent Decree, to manage the risk of unconstitutional conduct, to respond to the Monitoring Team’s requests for data in order to measure progress, to enable the Court to assess the speed and good faith of implementation, or to respond to routine inquiries by
City Council for data needed for legislative purposes. (1)

  • IT’s attitude and equipment are outdated

Modern policing is, in short, a scientific and data~driven enterprise…. The Settlement Agreement repeatedly stresses the need for the SPD to gather accurate data by which to manage the risk of unconstitutional policing and measure compliance. The SPD has nonetheless found it difficult to embrace these new technologies. Current data and analytical capabilities are nowhere near adequate. The SPD generates frequently erroneous and incomplete factual information about itself and officer performance. (6)

  • “We can do this ourselves!” — But they can’t

A business intelligence system, properly conceived and developed, is pivotal to SPD’s ability to hold itself accountable for constitutional policing…. During the last year, the SPD has spent substantial time and money–possibly hundreds of thousands of the business intelligence project because some within the Department firmly insisted that they could develop a system on their own, without input from outside experts or from those who will be the users of the system. A proposed “vendor” solution that would link the Department’s existing, jerry-built silos of erroneous and incomplete data to each other, with a weak interconnection, fell well short of what is needed: a modern, sophisticated, and dynamic tool that SPD can use to pragmatically and rigorously assess its performance. (7)

  • “Nobody can do this!” — Wrong again

Despite the Monitoring Team repeatedly advising SPD to tum to outside experts and consider alternative solutions for collecting more reliable data, this advice was slow to gain internal support. SPD’s IT leadership consistently told the Monitoring Team that some interim solutions were not technologically feasib1e–even though they were later shown to be easy to accomplish. (7)

  • The problem in IT is the leadership

Notwithstanding the SPD’s resistance to change and suspicion of innovation in some quarters, the Monitor emphasizes that there are many talented individuals within the SPD dealing with data and information technology who are working in good faith and taking justifiable pride in their accomplishments. The problem appears Qt to be the lack of a talented and dedicated staff but, instead, a failure by some members of senior IT leadership to fully accept the requirements of the Settlement Agreement…. (7-8)

  • How IT implements racially color-blind policing

The Monitoring Team’s third troubling discovery was that, for two consecutive years, the demographic figures for Asian and Caucasian subjects in use of force incidents were notably inconsistent with subsequent years. After confirming the accuracy of its analysis, the Monitoring Team brought this inconsistency to the attention of the Compliance Coordinator’s office. After an inquiry, the SPD explained that, for two years, “Asian” was incorrectly recorded in AIM as “Caucasian,” and vice–versa. Thus, although the Monitoring Team collected use of force data across only seven basic categories, it discovered a critical systematic error. The Monitoring Team understands that no effort is currently being made to audit or otherwise correct these errors. It underscores DOJ’s view that the SPD 1acked–and the Monitoring Team thinks the SPD still lacks–the basic tools necessary to manage the risk of unconstitutional policing. (11)

  • IT’s reputation for incompetence provides cover for misconduct

As this report details elsewhere, video and audio are missing far too frequently for incidents reviewed by the Use of Force Review Board and Firearms Review Board These omissions compromise the integrity and quality of investigations. When ICV [in-car video] is missing, the Department regularly and without additional inquiry accepts the explanation that the officer’s equipment was not properly functioning or that the officer did not know how to operate it. The days of technical issues being an immediately accepted excuse for the absence of video must come to an end so that officers can be fairly held accountable if they inappropriately fail to activate ICV or cause their on-body microphone to be muted during an incident. (13)

Former Seattle CTO endorses surveillance cameras

Former City of Seattle CTO Bill Schrier (@billschrier), a man we respect, admire, and retweet frequently, and who originally proposed that Seattle’s meshnet be free and open to the public, surprised us with an article in favor of surveillance cameras on Crosscut. Our correspondent over at the Privacy Project, Number Six, writes:

“This is most disturbing, especially when it’s been shown that London “I love CCTV more than anywhere else”, UK hasn’t seen any notable decline in crime based on using ever-more-ubiquitous surveillance:

An ounce of prevention is worth FAR more than a pound of cure, and these cams and wireless trackers that were recently outed are the ‘cure’ we don’t need. I would take more police on the street any day than faceless cameras that store data who knows where, for how long, and available to who knows who.  I can talk to a policeman, his/her supervisor, the police chief, etc. — I can’t talk to a camera.  A camera isn’t accountable. And the 4th Amendment holds emphatically that we are NOT ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

And it’s *very* important to note  — these are HARD questions by nature. Taking the easy way out is what we’ve done to date — talking together and then acting on these questions is far more difficult – but ultimately may actually mete out a compromise we can all live with.  Pointing out that ‘everyone has phones with video capability’ is a straw man that burns down in a whiff of smoke – last time I was walking around in public, I certainly did not see everyone on the street video-recording everyone else, let alone snapping everyone’s photo — why?  Because it’s not appropriate and societal norms resist it, whether you are a privacy advocate or not. Is Schrier saying we should just ‘accept our fate’ and be done with it?  NO, thank you, sir  —  and I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority on that view, even in camera-burdened 21st-century Seattle.

Time to make sure the new mayor and incoming City Council take that to heart now, in writing, in law — or we never will.”

Thanks for the eagle eye, Number Six. It’s easy to get used to the sound of our own arguments, and we found it jarring to read sensible, well-respected Bill Schrier saying this: “Luckily, technology provides a cheaper option: surveillance cameras.”

The discussion of cost effectiveness would be more interesting if data showed that cameras actually do prevent crime. As it is, however, comparing the cost of cameras to the cost of officers feels a bit like a red herring.

Schrier does go on to acknowledge that the truth is we already have a very serious problem with privacy invasion, not only as a result of publicly financed law enforcement technologies, but also as a result of the dizzyingly advanced private use of surveillance technologies with respect to every aspect of our lives. And the outrageous monetizing of that data by reflecting us back to ourselves in advertising built on facial recognition technologies.

As one way to address the problem, Shrier suggests making all video footage open to watchdog group scrutiny and allowing ACLU to search surveillance databases. And then, with an interesting twist of what sounds like existential doubt, he calls for more ideas about safeguards: “Are we frightened enough to use video technology to significantly — perhaps massively — extend the reach and multiply the capabilities of the Seattle Police Department? And, if so, what safeguards do we need to put in place to manage this brave new world?”

Those are very good questions. We’re glad to see them coming up for public discussion at last. For more on Seattle Privacy’s position on surveillance and privacy protections at the municipal level, see our Manifesto.

TA3M Seattle, November 2013

November 2013 Speaker 1:

Lisha Sterling, “Introducing Geeks Without Bounds and Random Hacks of Kindness”

Our first speaker is Lisha Sterling. In this presentation, “Introducing Geeks Without Bounds and Random Hacks of Kindness”, Lisha will tell us about how GWOB supports humanitarian open source projects by organizing hackathons like the semi-annual global RHoK events and by mentoring promising projects through their accelerator program.

Lisha is the Developer Coordinator at GWOB and serves as one of the technical mentors in the accelerator. You can read her very short rants on Twitter at @lishevita or read her longer adventures in tech at http://alwayssababa.com.

November 2013 Speaker 2:

Damian Johnson, “Tor Ecosystem: Developers Guide to Contributing to the Tor Project”

Our second speaker is Damian Johnson, a local volunteer Tor Developer. In this presentation, “Tor Ecosystem: Developers Guide to Contributing to the Tor Project”, Damian will describe the myriad of sub-projects in the Tor ecosystem and how you can get involved with development.

Damian is has been a volunteer with the Tor project since 2009, and is the main author behind arm https://www.atagar.com/arm/ and stem https://stem.torproject.org/.

November 2013 Speaker 3:

Lee Colleton, “Operating nodes in the Tor network”

Our third speaker is Lee Colleton. In this presentation, “Operating nodes in the Tor network” in the support and defense of free speech, free association and protecting anonymity online, Lee will be demonstrating the setup and operation of Tor on various platforms: on a desktop computer, on a tiny router and also on an Android device in the form of Orbot from The Guardian Project. Hardware will be given away free to attendees who agree to run a Tor node.

Lee is a systems administrator and a member of the Seattle Privacy Coalition.

====== November Videos! ======


Embedding information is here – https://archive.org/help/video.php?identifier=t3am-seattle-nov2013

Copied for archiving from: https://wiki.openitp.org/events:techno-activism_3rd_mondays:november_2013

SPD promises interim shutdown of mesh radio network

The Stranger reported on Tuesday that Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel has ordered deactivation of the mesh radio network installed across the city, pending approval of a use policy for the DHS-funded mesh nodes and surveillance cameras. The policy shift comes days after the Stranger‘s exposé revealing the privacy threat from these devices, which are designed by their manufacturer to track and log mobile wireless devices passing near them.

Pugel’s announcement brings Seattle closer to compliance with its own laws. On March 18, the City Council passed Council Bill 117730, requiring city departments to have advance approval before acquiring new surveillance equipment, and to submit use policies for existing equipment within 30 days. Eight months later, there is still no policy. Meanwhile, investigation by Seattle Privacy Coalition revealed that the radio and camera equipment was turned on and functional, even if not being actively used.

We are currently waiting for the blinking blue and amber lights on the mesh nodes to go dark. So far, a quick check along Alaskan Way finds them powered on, just as before.

Seattle media discover the SPD mesh radio network

The mesh radio network that the Seattle Police Department put in alongside its surveillance cameras has suddenly become an object of interest in the Seattle media. Two recent stories reveal the extent of the network, its ability to track innocent citizens, the concerns voiced for the last eight months by Seattle Privacy Coalition, the ACLU, and others, and the Seattle City Council’s ongoing state of hibernation about this subject, to say nothing of Mayor Un-Elect Mike McGinn’s reflexive support of the everything the police do.

1. The Stranger published a really excellent article on this topic, You are a rogue device, giving credence to its claim of being “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.”

2. KIRO 7 TV aired a November 7 report, Seattle police have a wireless network that can track your every move. Their piece was picked also picked up by The Raw Story on December 10.

If you look to the right side of this page and click on the map (or click here), you can see for yourself where those mesh radio nodes are located.

Keep it coming, Seattle media, and light a fire under City Hall.