Shelved Seattle Police drones highlight transparency problems with surveillance equipment

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.

Other coverage:

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

Against DHS funding for SPD facial recognition software, fusion centers

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:

  1. Hold the legislation for further discussion, including a minimum of three public hearings in the evening when the public can attend.
  2. Make any amendments necessary to the operating surveillance ordinance (Ordinance 124142) that is already in effect BEFORE purchasing any more equipment.
  3. 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.

Talking points

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.

December 2013 Public Safety Committee (PSC) held the 11th iteration of the legislation due to a potentially controversial program, Booking Comparison Software. PSC asked SPD to provide documentation of public outreach in privacy policy development and asked for ACLU and Human Rights Commission input into the system.

January 2014 New executive, changes to SPD command staff. SPD received input from ACLU and Human Rights Commission, provided draft privacy policy.

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.

Senator Cantwell, please co-sponsor the USA Freedom Act

Here’s a recap of our meeting this morning with Senator Cantwell’s staffer to ask Senator Cantwell to co-sponsor the USA Freedom Act, which aims to curtail the illegal activities of the NSA.

Seven of us attended, three Seattle Privacy founders, and four other people brought together by Free Press.

It was a curious group. Two of us had direct experience with performing surveillance or sharing data with the NSA, two had deep knowledge of the East German surveillance state experience, one of us was an immigrant rights activist who addressed the disproportionate impact of oppressive technologies on already marginalized populations, and four of us currently work for three Very Large Tech Companies with offices in our area (though we weren’t representing those employers, of course).

During an hour’s conversation, we covered a number of the toxic effects of surveillance: the chilling of free speech, the undermining of the American private sector in tech, the hollowing out of civil society and the poisoning of even the most intimate familial relationships by suspicion and fear, the potential for blackmail of people in positions of power, the use of military technologies against civilian populations, to name a few.

We talked about the well-documented attempted blackmail of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., zero-day exploits, the revered, and compromised, standards body NIST, Guantanamo and indefinite detention. We dug into the history of the Clipper Chip and the TIA program, and how the American people have repeatedly rejected programs of this type, only to have the democratic process circumvented by security agencies. We even talked a little bit about how DHS funding of the Alki cameras allowed SPD to elude local oversight (had there been any). (Unaccountably I think we missed mentioning the assault on the free press.)

I think I might even have said something about how the whole endeavor was unAmerican.

The staffer’s questions were smart and pointed. We left him with a 1-pager on the USA Freedom Act, asking Sen. Cantwell to sign on as a co-sponsor and take a leadership role in promoting the bill. We got the expected and natural, “We’ll get back to you” response, but it was still very heartening. I for one felt like I’d finally gotten to say some things that I feel VERY strongly about to someone who is actually in a position to potentially do something about them.

One interesting moment was when the staff person asked us, “How do you respond to someone who says, ‘I don’t care, I don’t have anything to hide, if it makes us safer, great!’ (basically)”. He implied that he hears that a LOT.

And it’s a really tough question to answer succinctly and in a way that’s relevant to the person who asks that sort of question. I’m hoping that our note taker got other people’s responses down, because I sort of zoned out formulating my own. I think a problem we run into with this question, or this attitude, is that people ask that question out of a visceral state of fear, and a longing to feel safe, and we respond from an analytical and rational and value-based point of view with evidence about whether surveillance prevents terrorism and idealistic discussions about freedom and liberties and rights and responsibilities and trade offs, etc.

It’s not that we’re wrong, it’s just that we don’t connect with the emotional starting point of the other person. I have never figured out how to “meet people where they are” with this particular question. I don’t particularly want to respond to fear by offering a different, better fear, either. If anyone has found an effective way to respond to that question, please share it widely!

Senator Cantwell’s staffer advised us to talk to the rest of the state congressional delegation and we will certainly make every effort to do so.

Seattle Privacy expands mission to include state, federal issues

We formed Seattle Privacy almost a year ago, with the specific intention of persuading Seattle City Council to empower an expert civilian privacy oversight board to review all proposed use of surveillance equipment in the City of Seattle. We were responding to the deployment of surveillance cameras along Alki. The longer we poked around, the more equipment and surveillance systems we found, including SPD’s use of ALPR (automatic license plate readers), the Seattle Shield program, whereby private companies provide surveillance data to SPD, and the interesting role of Homeland Security funding in building Seattle’s mesh net.

Then, Edward Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong, with revelations about the NSA’s illegal dragnet surveillance programs and what has fairly been called the militarization of the Internet.

At first we tried to stay focused on what we could do right here in Seattle. We dreamed of presenting Seattle to the world as a model of legislative success in curtailing surveillance. We still do

Over time, however, all of our members have been drawn into other efforts as well. This week we’re talking to US Senator Maria Cantwell, next week we’ll be lobbying state elected officials in Olympia. It’s time for us to acknowledge that we are no longer a municipally focused organization. We’re working with Washington State ACLU and the national organization Free Press to identify legislators to contact and legislation to promote.

We seek the protection of privacy for all people, where ever they live, whatever their citizenship, against increasingly totalitarian government surveillance programs and intrusive and cynical corporate data collection. Our focus remains on policymaking, but we are happy to publicize other approaches, including direct action, protests, petitions, training and educational efforts, and more.

Be seeing you!

Harrell holds DHS grant vote for privacy policy update

We were informed today that item 4, the legislation that would accept a DHS grant for the Seattle Police Department, which we referred to in our previous post, has been dropped from tomorrow’s Public Safety Committee agenda. Here is the information from Committee Chair Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s office:

“Our office just received an email from SPD at 3:19 pm today, 12/3, requesting additional time to engage in further policy discussions with ACLU and other stakeholders and has requested that the legislation be held from the agenda tomorrow. SPD will reintroduce the legislation for consideration once the policy has been finalized.”

We’re glad to see that SPD is responding to the requirements of Ordinance 124142 and drafting a privacy policy for its proposed acquisition of a Booking Comparison System, a likely future component of facial recognition software the department plans to acquire.