January 23rd, 2017 by David Robinson
Call for action: Demand transparency related to federal government surveillance in Seattle
Email the city and insist that city employees document cooperation with federal requests for surveillance cameras.
What: Meeting of Seattle City Council Committee on Energy and Environment. Agenda: https://seattle.legistar.com/View.ashx…
When: Tuesday, January 24, at 2 pm
Where: Council Chambers at Seattle City Hall (601 5th Avenue, at Cherry)
Why: Of interest in the agenda is item #2:
Warrantless Surveillance Cameras in Seattle: How to protect
the privacy of Seattleites and reverse the proliferation of
surveillance cameras installed by the Seattle Police
Department and Federal law enforcement agencies on SCL
polls in public space without democratic authorization or
As many of you will know, Seattle currently has legislation about surveillance equipment on the books. Currently, however, federal agencies ignore it (because it doesn’t apply to them) and use city resources to put up their own cameras. Seattle Privacy has documented several cases where the ATF or FBI entered into informal, off-the-record, verbal agreements Seattle City Light employees allowing the placement of cameras on utility poles.
We support the committee’s study of this issue call on the committee members to back corrective legislation.
What you can do
Attend the meeting if you can, and speak out during the public comment period.
If you can’t attend, you can submit a public comment by emailing the committee members:
For example, you might feel that…
- Any agreements between federal and city agencies regarding surveillance equipment should be written down and FOIA-able.
- The public should know who makes the call to allow ATF cameras.
- The lack of transparency in the city’s dealings with the federal government is at odds with our status as a sanctuary city.
We’ll be at the meeting, and hope to see you there.
March 29th, 2015 by David Robinson
Seattle Privacy Coalition has blogged before about the aggressive marketing practices of ShotSpotterTM, the controversial gun-fire detection system that Seattle City Council wants to purchase. Now our friendly competitor news outlet The Intercept has blasted the story sky-high. When a sales pitch in Council Chambers is really a lobbying campaign by an international arms dealer, hold onto your wallet and your freedoms.
Here’s the Intercept article in a nutshell:
- Despite claims to the contrary, ShotSpotter, which uses a network of microphones to pinpoint gunshots in covered areas, also records conversations going on in the vicinity. This is established fact, inasmuch as the recordings have been admitted as evidence in criminal trials.
- ShotSpotter’s wide deployment in over 90 US cities is powered by an aggressive lobbying campaign.
- DC lobbyist Ferguson Group, by targeting congressional delegations, has secured $7 million in federal funds to purchase ShotSpotter through Department of Justice.
- ShotSpotter also has hired lobbying firms Squire Patton Boggs, Raben Group, Greenberg Traurig, and Mercury Group Public Affairs to sell its products at the federal, state, and city levels, including coordination with police unions.
- Having laid the federal funding groundwork, ShotSpotter guides potential customers
through the grant application process.
- ShotSpotter cultivates revolving-door relationships with law-enforcement heavies. Senior Vice President David Chipman is a former senior official at the ATF and a former fellow to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton did a stint as a board member before assuming his present position as one of ShotSpotter’s newest and biggest customers. (Fortunately for the American Way, he recused himself from that purchasing decision.)
The article also spotlights the silly claims by company executives that ShotSpotter is not a listening device. As one helpfully explains, “It’s an acoustic sensor. It’s not a microphone,” which you can file under Distinction Without A Difference. And, as usual, ShotSpotter can’t keep its story straight. Our Oakland friend @marymad contributes this capture from the ShotSpotter Web site:
Just like a cell phone, eh? That explains why the 20-30 foot limit is nonsense, too. Cell phone users know that speaker-phone mode picks up anything loud enough to be picked up, regardless of distance. A conversation 100 feet away on a quiet street? No problem.
The Intercept piece concludes with this alarming assessment of the privacy issues presented by ShotSpotter’s audio surveillance:
The lessons here are not new:
- ShotSpotter is a questionable use of money, a technical quick-fix that does little for public safety and nothing for the underlying causers of crime.
- The company is a snake-oil merchant that constantly makes claims that defy scientific logic.
- The ShotSpotter lobbying machine is a public menace.
We support the plan by Seattle City Council to closely review the money provisionally allocated to purchase ShotSpotter.
November 14th, 2014 by David Robinson
Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour reminds us that courage is local
A few days before the Seattle City Council announced its precedent-setting privacy initiative, the year’s most anticipated documentary, Citizenfour, opened at the Uptown SIFF Cinema. Laura Poitras’s third film about the post-9/11 American security state tells the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower who made “dragnet surveillance” a household term.
Seattle’s step toward privacy and accountability was well-covered in the local press and also made the leap to a couple of governance trade journals. Seattle Privacy made sure that Laura Poitras herself knew what had happened here at the same time that her film was drawing capacity crowds. She sent us congratulations:
It is fitting that Seattle is first to respond – it is the home of NSA
PRISM partners such as Microsoft, as well a strong community of people
building alternatives to dragnet surveillance. These alternatives, as
well as informing and engaging with the people of Seattle, are a step
toward regaining meaningful democratic oversight relating to security
and privacy in our country.
If not for Seattle, this history would be different.
When the Seattle Privacy Coalition came together in early 2013, the city’s political establishment issued us the tin-foil hats reserved for people who worry about government surveillance. The disgraced, federally supervised Seattle Police Department was so used to getting its way in technology matters that it shrugged off negative public reaction to the “port security” camera network. In talks with city officials, we provoked eye-rolls and knowing smirks by suggesting that the city should pass up federal grant money that paid for boondoggles such as police drones. [Note: See the update at the end of this post. It ain’t over.]
After Snowden, the complacency was gone. Little has changed at the national or state levels — the security agencies still run Congress and the White House, Boeing still dictates to Olympia. But locally, there is movement. DHS-funded spying and cops in tanks have become issues with names: Oakland, Ferguson. The city establishment’s dread of controversy now works in favor of privacy advocates. The security lobby will have a hard time influencing every petty municipality the way it influences the federal government.
An evolving model for political action emerges from Citizenfour. In a world where democracy and the press have ceased to function at the highest levels, we watch lone individuals making fateful choices grounded in their private experience. These precise moments of integrity contrast with farcically mediated global contexts: archival footage of NSA Director Keith Alexander and National Security Director James Clapper telling extravagant lies to Congress; a frantic scrum of boom-bearing reporters around Glenn Greenwald and his partner (and taking care to edit themselves out of the film they will broadcast); or the recurring apparition of Wolf Blitzer playing Wolf Blitzer. Always there is a strong implicit case for what it real and what is not, and where personal agency lies.
“There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.” — Leonard Cohen
Poitras, not Snowden, is the first example of this in Citizenfour. Out of the blue, Snowden sends her an encrypted email message, an event recreated on-screen as white text unspooling in the black void of a Linux computer terminal. Disembodied in this weirdly intimate environment, an as yet anonymous Snowden tells her he is a spy, that he has classified disclosures to make, that there is great danger, and that their joint government adversary can attempt one trillion password cracks per second. Her private decision to accept this mysterious challenge leads to the events of the movie. When she later asks “Citizenfour” why he had chosen her, He tells her, “You chose yourself.”
Poitras next tells the story of NSA veteran William Binney. After the end of the Cold War, he developed systems to automate the collection and analysis of telecommunications metadata. Originally, the targets were foreign, but shortly after 9/11, NSA turned Binney’s work into the basis of its new program of blanket domestic surveillance. His internal protests against NSA’s lawless, ineffective, and wasteful policies went nowhere, and he soon left the agency. After being raided at gun-point in 2007 during an FBI leak investigation (in which he was later cleared), Binney gained prominence as one of the most outspoken NSA whistle-blowers prior to Snowden.
The misguided raid on Binney was provoked in part by the revelations of Mark Klein, who is not actually in the movie, though we do see a hearing from one the lawsuits that resulted. Klein was a technician for AT&T who discovered that Room 641a at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco was an NSA diversion site for all of AT&T’s Internet and telephone traffic. Appalled by what amounted to a tap on the entire Internet, Klein took his story to the Los Angeles Times, which refused (under government pressure) to print it. He next took it to the New York Times, which also bowed to government pressure for a year before finally publishing it in 2005.
Seattle Privacy’s co-founder Jacob Appelbaum turns up twice in the film, once before and once after his NSA reporting forced him into Berlin exile. In one segment, he presses an Occupy Wall Street audience to consider whether they have been personally under surveillance, and lists ways it could have happened — not just by means of telephones, email, and the Web, but also credit cards, travel passes, etc. He calls them canaries in a coal mine who are experiencing what everybody will experience in the near future. (As Jacob likes to say, “My present is your future,” though he now thinks the future has pretty much arrived for everyone.) The personal experience entails the universal problem, and is the key to fighting it.
We also meet Ladar Levison, the [former] proprietor of the secure email service Lavabit. Its most famous customer: Edward Snowden. Levison built an encrypted mail service that collected no information on its users, and thus had nothing to give law enforcement even when subpoenaed. Unable to identify Snowden’s correspondents in the usual way by seizing metadata, the FBI told Levison to give up Lavabit’s master SSL encryption keys, which would allow them to uncloak the entire Lavabit customer base secretly in real time. Levison instead shut down his business rather than betray his customers’ privacy. Try to imagine that in a corporatized setting where profit is paramount and ethical concerns are actionable in civil court.
In bare outline, Snowden’s own story is that he gave up his prior life and risked life imprisonment (or worse) to expose the actions of NSA and its partners. Most will remember his principled if fatalistic rationale from the original June 2013 interview. In Citizenfour, Snowden’s anxiety and regret become palpable. He masters his fear and steps through the hotel room door into what may be the waiting arms of a hostile government. Though Snowden repeatedly downplays his role in leaking the documents — “I’m not the story” — his choice is the story.
At Seattle Privacy, we hope to change how citizens are treated by their local government and by the police. The recent good news notwithstanding, we will continue to push the City Council to follow through on its stated intentions. We don’t want the promised oversight structure to end up a dead letter like Ordinance 124142, another privacy “first” that was passed 18 months ago and never enforced. At stake is a role for Seattle as a national model of awakened democratic government. It took bold individuals to expose the corrupt surveillance state, and it will take a bold community to prove Laura Poitras right: “If not for Seattle, this history would be different.”
Even as I wrote and published this, the City Council threatened to reverted business-as-usual by planning a budget hearing for a ShotSpotter-type system. For information about the city’s past flirtation with outdoor audio surveillance (and some sleazy video of Seattle politics at its worst) see our ShotSpotter fact sheet. Rest assured we will communicate to our leaders what we think of their renewed interest in ShotSpotter.
March 27th, 2014 by Phil Mocek
As the results of a public records request recently revealed, Seattle Police Department never quite got around to sending back those drones we were all talking about back in early 2013.
Brief refresher: In early 2012, three days after then-mayoral-hopeful Bruce Harrell of Seattle City Council introduced a bill to regulate the use of drones by Seattle Police Department, then-mayor Mike McGinn one-upped his opponent by abruptly announcing an end to the drone program. McGinn also declared that the devices would be sent back to the vendor from which they were purchased.
This was a win for the public–we never asked our police to purchase flying surveillance cameras in the first place–and we celebrated it as such. But to those who were paying close enough attention, McGinn’s decree looked like political posturing.
Surveillance technology advances rapidly. The fact that SPD’s 2010-era drones, with their 15-minute battery life and inability to fly in the rain, are sitting on a shelf here in Seattle gathering dust doesn’t worry us.
We are more concerned about the continued lack of transparency in how surveillance equipment is acquired and deployed (and disabled, or not disabled), and the lack of meaningful oversight of the police department, and about the fact that our police continue to use U.S. Department Homeland Security money to purchase equipment the public doesn’t trust them to use in a constitutional manner.
Our Mayor and City Council need advice from technologists and privacy advocates to fend off the ever-encroaching surveillance state at the local level. Until we formalize a system for providing elected officials with the information they need to make good decisions, they will continue to be blind-sided by SPD’s use of their homeland security slush fund for purchases of equipment used to treat everyone as a potential suspect.
The Seattle Police Dept Said It Would Get Rid of Its Drones. It Hasn’t.
by Shawn Musgrave
March 25, 2014
Seattle Police Secretly Keep Drones Despite Promise
by Mikael Thalen
March 26, 2014
Seattle Police Still Have Drones
by Ansel Hertz
March 26, 2014
February 14th, 2014 by Jan Bultmann
By Jan Bultmann, David Robinson, Phil Mocek, and Garrett Cobarr
2/18/2014 Post-Meeting update:
- Four Seattle Privacy members spoke to the Public Safety Committee (PSC) today.
- We submitted this document to the committee for inclusion in the public record.
- PSC did NOT vote on the bill today, but it will be re-introduced to full council on Monday 2/24.
- Full council will vote on it 3/10.
- In the meantime, we are marking up a copy of the policy document submitted by Seattle Police Department to Council, to give councilmembers an example of what a through independent technical review with an eye toward privacy and security would look like, and how useful it would be.
Here are background information and talking points for the 2/18/2014 2 pm meeting of the Seattle City Council Public Safety Committee (PSC).
In this post:
What is the legislation?
C.B. 117996 accepts an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant in the amount of $1,645,955 under Federal Fiscal Year 2012 funding. The bill would approve acquisition of an arrest booking photo comparison database, and add a section to the Seattle Police Manual describing its proper use.
What is Seattle Privacy’s position?
We call on the PSC to do the following:
- Hold the legislation for further discussion, including a minimum of three public hearings in the evening when the public can attend.
- Make any amendments necessary to the operating surveillance ordinance (Ordinance 124142) that is already in effect BEFORE purchasing any more equipment.
- Explain what items SPD needs that the city is not able or willing to provide, and why we have not seen these items in budget proposals.
Need for Meaningful Council Oversight
- This is a police department that has been found to engage in *unconstitutional* behavior fully 20% of the time they use force.
- Council’s discussions with SPD at the table and dais appear sometimes to be with some other police force, not the one that we read about in DOJ and monitor reports.
- We get the impression that the the PSC is reluctant to question the assertions of SPD.
- In the past, SPD has used DHS grant money to purchase drones and surveillance cameras which public outcry has later forced them to shut down. Past behavior is predictor of future behavior.
- During all that time that unconstitutional force was being used, the Office of Police Accountability very rarely found wrongdoing. Investigations of allegations appear to be ineffective. We have reason to believe that if there are episodes of misconduct, little will be done and the public will be kept in the dark.
- SPD has earned distrust and strict oversight, and that is the job of the City Council and an informed public.
- SPD and City Council justify the acceptability of these systems by saying that “the ACLU and the Human Rights Commission were involved in review.” We hold that this level of review is utterly insufficient for funding of programs whose value has been thrown into grave doubt. It does not meet any objective measure of public input. We insist that council hold a minimum of three public hearings before accepting DHS money for SPD use.
Problem with the Booking Comparison System
- This system enables SPD to search records of many people who were never charged, much less convicted, of crime.
- As currently written, the policy could be changed at any time without notice to Council or the public. This PSC has talked about Ordinance 124142 as a safeguard, but that ordinance is weak, containing no language about compliance or penalties for noncompliance. We also know that the police introduced language that weakened it further at 5 pm the Friday before Council voted it through as amended Monday morning.
- We know that Councilmember Harrell plans to introduce an amendment to address the weakness of the operating surveillance ordinance (Ordinance 124142) in March, but we want to see that ordinance amended BEFORE any new equipment is purchased.
- Ordinance 124142 is now one year old and we have yet to see any record that any department has submitted privacy policies in compliance with it. The city has failed to follow its own law.
- The Booking Photo Comparison System policy defines a suspect as “a person whom an officer reasonably suspects may be involved in criminal activity.” That includes people who are never even arrested.
- “The database will contain only booking photos of individuals who have been arrested, fingerprinted, photographed and booked into an adult correctional facility in King, Pierce or Snohomish counties.” That includes people who are never charged with a crime.
- The Booking Photo Comparison System usage log will be audited annually by SPD’s Audit, Policy and Research. How will auditors verify that there was probable cause? Where will that information be logged for audits? What’s the enforcement mechanism?
- What’s to limit what photos will be dumped into the database? (For example, mention has been made of a WA Department of Licensing facial recognition database based on driver’s licenses.)
- What is the limit on where future additions to the database will come from?
- Allowing automation of policy activities takes it from somewhat acceptable to invasive and unacceptable. A human officer can fly a camera around, investigate license plates, and look at photographs. But we don’t want an army of police robots in the sky, on poles, in cameras in cars, following us all around and mining any photographs they can get for data, dumping it into a database that they may share with any number of county, state, and federal agencies.
- Example: May Day 2012 incident action plan where Sanford called for photos of all known “anarchists/criminals” and people who’d been arrested in Occupy protests
- Just as the NSA manipulated and misled Congress, SPD are likely to manipulate and mislead City Council. They will allow Council and the public to assume the best, while the police push to the limit of what they can get away with. They are rules-enforcers, not rights-protectors.
- We call on Council to think about potential purchases with consideration for just how bad it could be, not just concoct a rosy vision of how well it could go.
- Example: In documents released under public disclosure earlier this week we learned that city of Seattle built a radio receiver system so they can watch the (sometimes unencrypted) communications from the WSP’s flying infrared cameras, which we know to be used to monitor, for example, political demonstrations. Were Council aware of this system? (FLIR 380)
- Example: In August 2012 The Guardian reported that DHS paid $832,000 for a trial deployment of the Trapwire surveillance system in Seattle. Was Council aware of this system?
Timeline of events behind Council Bill 117996
December 2003 Initial version of this legislation is passed: Ordinance 121283, passed by the City Council on September 22, 2003, authorized the Seattle Police Department to apply for funding under FFY03 UASI Grant Award Programs I and II, authorized the Seattle Police Department to execute an agreement to partner with the State of Washington, King County, and other local jurisdictions to participate in UASI Grant Award Program II, and appropriated an initial allocation of funding under both grant programs for immediate needs of conducting vulnerability assessments and providing urgently needed equipment to City departments.
2004-2012 Variations on same legislation passed every single year without significant public debate for 10 years.
June 2013 Edward Snowden reveals NSA domestic spying programs.
February 5, 2014 SPD presented legislation to PSC, discussion.
February 19, 2014 PSC discussion.
February 24, 2014 Bill to be re-introduced.
March 10, 2014 Full council vote.