Proposal: Overhaul Surveillance Ordinance as Data Collection, Retention and Sharing Ordinance

By Jan Bultmann and Christopher Sheats


Our city has committed to protecting immigrants, refugees, and the many thousands of other vulnerable populations. We argue that this is not possible without strong privacy oversight, safeguards, and enforcement. The local privacy community urges Seattle’s leadership to set aside for the moment the discussion of our Surveillance Ordinance and any amendments to it, and instead to develop an ordinance that holistically addresses the government’s role in data collection, retention, and sharing.

Why pause now? The ACLU of Washington has proposed a stronger version of the existing bill, which has been watered down by multiple revisions that remove the many critical elements including independent oversight, auditing, reporting, and enforcement requirements. But even with the ACLU’s original, stronger proposal, the foundation of the bill is inadequate.

We now live in a very different environment than when the Surveillance Ordinance was first crafted, although it has only been 3 years. This legislation was drafted in response to the public outcry that accompanied the Seattle Police Department’s acquisition of drones without public knowledge. Council chambers were repeatedly packed with demonstrators. After having wasted $82,000 dollars, the drones were ultimately decommissioned. The Surveillance Ordinance was successful to meet that immediate challenge.

Now we promise vulnerable people that we are a sanctuary city that will defend their human rights. We are literally in the crosshairs of a hostile federal government, one that has been shown to disregard local regulations and make backroom deals with city agencies. For example, putting cameras on City Light poles in direct violation of our existing surveillance law, putting nothing in writing, and further, evading any form of FOIA or PDR process.

“As a sanctuary city we have a greater obligation to protect private citizens.” — Kshama Sawant

We have autonomous cars coming, including wireless car to car technology, wireless car to infrastructure technology, and the lobbyists that come with them. We have facial recognition technologies coming and the lobbyists that come with them. We will be seeing the largest developments of these technologies within President Trump’s term.

Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative clearly states:

By 2017, the City of Seattle will work with community-based organizations to support the movement to end structural racism.

We can tell you that the City has not asked the Seattle Privacy Coalition for input on how we might accomplish this, and we are well into 2017. Further, CTAB-Privacy has not been asked for input on these amendments by the Council. How can Seattle’s Surveillance Ordinance go on to exempt technologies designed and purchased for surveillance? Do black lives really matter to Seattle when data collection, retention, and sharing technologies are historically and routinely purchased in the name of defense but used offensively?

If we do not hold ourselves accountable, a government for the people, how are we going to ethically govern the use of these technologies when they are funded, deployed, and managed by third parties? How is Seattle going to defend our human rights if we have a “surveillance ordinance” that is not adequate for the complexity of a major municipality? Common sense demands that we broaden the scope to include all forms of data collection, retention, and sharing. This would eliminate splitting hairs on terms that exclude any technology not specifically purchased to support law enforcement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a legal digital rights organization that maintains an umbrella grassroots organization called Electronic Frontier Alliance. Last week we discussed surveillance ordinances under development in more than 11 municipalities across the United States. The Seattle Washington ordinance was cited as being “well-intended but weak” whereas the Oakland California legislation was cited as effective because their draft legislation includes provisions for independent oversight that are fundamental to all controls, auditing and reporting requirements, and enforcement options such as the public’s right to sue for privacy harms. We strongly advise that Council review the Oakland California ordinance.

The Seattle ordinance MUST include oversight, auditing, reporting, and enforcement, and it cannot be limited to a false notion of what is or it not for surveillance. Without these fundamental changes, we are a sanctuary city in name only. With federal access to municipal databases unmonitored, unchecked, and unreported, anyone who makes use of a city service is vulnerable. When privacy is by design and policies are made to support the most vulnerable in our city, we, in effect, defend everyone’s human rights.

As defined by Seattle’s Privacy Program, we have a Privacy Review Process (PDF) that we can leverage for all forms of data collection. All forms, because there cannot be a lack of transparency and accountability. This must be baked into a Data Collection, Retention and Sharing Ordinance. Every act by the City that takes in information should have a corresponding unique identifier that must be published so that anyone can learn more about the data being collected, what it is being used for, and who is responsible for it. This will build trust. In line with Councilmember Sawant’s wishes to pull down foreign cameras from City utility poles, people have the right to be informed about what their government is collecting about them and their community. We should have the ability to learn about and to respond to our government in constructive ways. With the City’s drive for increasing open data and community engagement, why haven’t we started doing this yet?

Privacy is at risk from always-on microphones, cameras, smartphones, smart meters, automobiles, internet assistants like Alexa, Siri, Echo, and Cortona, Internet connected children’s toys, home appliances, and so many other things that have yet to even be invented. The city of Seattle cannot protect people today from predatory corporate data exploitation. We can, however, model what a human-rights respecting privacy policy looks like. And we must.

Please do not pass the watered-down Surveillance Ordinance rewrite into law because it will cause more harm than good. Instead, we urge the City Council to reach out to local community organizations such as the Seattle Privacy Coalition, Electronic Rights Rainier, and the body that the City Council assembled to advise them on technical issues, the Community Technology Advisory Board, to create a bill we can all be proud of.

If We Care For Survivors, Surveillance Technologies Must Be Heavily Regulated

By Christopher Sheats


In Seattle tomorrow, City Council will be discussing Surveillance Ordinance amendments originally proposed by ACLU of Washington and watered down by the council. The Surveillance Ordinance would be incredibly deficient if we passed these amendments. Of primary concern, there are multiple exemptions that are *crazy* if you were to juxtapose a United Nations privacy report.

Surveillance technology does not include:

(a) technology used to collect data from individuals who knowingly and voluntarily consent to provide, or who do not avail themselves of an opportunity to opt out of providing, such data for use by a City department;

(b) social media sites or news monitoring and news alert services;

(c) a body-worn camera;

(d) a camera installed in or on a police vehicle;

(e) a camera installed in or on any vehicle or along a public right-of-way used to record traffic patterns or traffic violations or to otherwise operate the transportation system safely and efficiently, including in any public right-of-way;

(f) a camera installed on City property for security purposes;

(g) a camera installed solely to protect the physical integrity of City infrastructure, such as Seattle Public Utilities reservoirs; and

(h) routine patches, firmware and software updates, and hardware lifecycle replacements.

In February, I spoke along side ACLU of Washington lawyers, University of Washington lawyers, and a domestic violence survivor at a public hearing in our state capitol to support an ACLU bill limiting Automatic Licence Plate Readers. Domestic violence survivors’ privacy, specifically their physical location privacy, is paramount to them and their families. Further, many survivors are victims to police men and women, making this under-served population a critical voice in discussions concerning surveillance technologies. At the hearing, A women with incredible courage showed up to educate the committee about her and the other 5,000+ Address Confidentiality Program participants. With permission, below is her testimony.

As content on our website is licensed using Creative Commons, please feel free to use share her testimony to further privacy rights.

Madame Chair, and members of the committee,

I am here today to discuss a part of my life so terrifying that, at times, I have actually contemplated writing a horror movie script.

Please forgive me, but by the end, it will make sense to today’s hearing.

I am here as a participant in the Washington State Address Confidentiality Program, ACP for short.

You will never understand, nor will I ever be able to convey the fear and torment that one individual can deliver. His words are still etched in my mind: “No woman is going to tell me, a man, what to do.” When trying to end a relationship, what I got in return was physical abuse and psychological terror. I would see him outside my home, my work, at my children’s school or stalking me in my rear-view mirror.

At times, he would convey to me each and every way or place he could have killed me that day.

I discovered that he had made duplicate keys of both my home and my car. Changing door locks didn’t matter. He still got inside. He was letting me know that he was in control.

My oldest son and I would eventually bobby trap our doors when we left, to more easily determine if he might be inside when we returned.

And though time, our much-loved pet cats disappeared one by one.

I lived through death and kidnapping threats to my children’s lives. I feared for my own life.

And in utter, desperate fear one night, I called a helpline, told them of my situation, and was advised to leave the state immediately. I did. On their advice, I gave my house keys to a friend, told nobody where I was going, put my kids and some clothes in my car, and drove to a state where I was offered protection.

I thank you so very much WA for the ACP. I no longer have to be afraid. It took me months but I no longer have to fear looking in my rear-view mirror.

This is hopefully the end of my desperate story.

But now, I want you to clearly understand one implication of unrestricted ALPR technology
I am here representing a vulnerable part of society, those who live in domestic violence situations. My ex-boyfriend kept telling me that he had connections to the police department, that there was no place to hide.

What if that was true? What if someone like me, couldn’t hide ever?

With unrestricted and retained ALPR data that becomes a real possibility.

I want you to consider the lives of spouses of law enforcement who might be in a domestic violence situation. My tale of torture existed because my stalker knew where I lived. Please protect your citizens, all your citizens, from potential location abuse. Please put restrictions on ALPR data.

“If not for Seattle, this history would be different”

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.

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

Washington state must regulate police drone use now

By Jan Bultmann and Lee Colleton

This week Seattle Privacy packed up in an electric vehicle (ask us about range anxiety) and headed south to ACLU Drone Lobby Day in Olympia, where we joined forces with a group of 30 or so other constituents for a refresher on the legislation we were there to support and tips on how to talk to lawmakers.

(The tips were good. I once worked as an aide in a council office, and I can tell you that sometimes it is absolutely impossible to figure out what in the hell your constituent is telling you to do. Preparing a brief, simple message, like, “We’re asking you to support Senate Bill 6172, which regulates government use of drones,” is a great idea.

Staying focused is also a good tip. It’s easy to burble on madly when you suddenly have access to a person who might actually be able to effect the change you care about. It’s never great to start a 10-minute meeting with “Before I was born…,” for example. I always want to explain the context and why context is important, and I would start with the dawn of agriculture if I had my way. Anyway. Being on time and polite, also good.)

On Drone Lobby Day, our message was, “We’re asking you to support Senate Bill 6172, which regulates government use of drones.”

drone on table
The bill would not affect the Seattle Privacy drone (pictured) or other hobbyist drones.

ACLU  gave us a detailed list of talking points. This is something we at Seattle Privacy could really learn from. We need to agree on talking points before we make visits with councilmembers, attend council hearings, or other public meetings. It’s the only way to make sure that every important point gets covered, and one particular point doesn’t get undue emphasis or time.

(In fact, we’re working on our first set of talking points, regarding smart meters, now, in preparation for speaking to the Seattle City Light Review Panel later this month.)

So here are a few highlights from SB 6172.

Court order required

Under SB 6172, state law enforcement agencies would need a court order to use drones to collect information that could be used to identify a person. This is essential. Because of how small and maneuverable drones already are, compared to manned aerial surveillance, and the relentless trend toward miniaturization in tech, it’s easy to see that drone surveillance introduces a host of new vantage points from which to view people. And if they don’t already have facial recognition software, they certainly will soon enough. An early version of the bill specified that they could not have weapons, but, tragically, I believe that language has been struck.

With drones emerging as a cornerstone of our military strategy, research is proceeding apace. We can bet that drones will become more powerful, more versatile and less expensive. Advances in artificial intelligence will enhance their ability to carry out increasingly invasive surveillance. We can expect drones that will carry high-power zoom lenses, employ thermal imaging and use radar to penetrate the walls of homes and businesses. With facial recognition software, they will be able to recognize and track individuals. And the Air Force is testing a system called “Gorgon Stare,” which uses multiple cameras to look at a whole city. – ACLU-WA

To add to what the ACLU asked us to focus on for their Drone Lobby Day, I want to say here that the combination of personally identifying data and drones carrying weapons powered the United States’s extrajudicial assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki’s innocent 16-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, and uncounted others, in Yemen. I don’t really expect the Washington State Patrol to start launching drone attacks against Washington residents without benefit of trial or due process, but I want to make it explicit that we don’t do that here. And we never should have done it, or still be doing it now, anywhere, to anyone, regardless of their country of citizenship.

Approval from local governing bodies BEFORE purchase

SB 6172 would require agencies to get approval from the state Legislature or local governments, such as city councils, before purchasing drones. This touches on an issue we at Seattle Privacy keep running into, which is how lavish amounts of money are available to state and local law enforcement agencies in the form of grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Again, to add to what ACLU has to say on this subject, I want to point out that these pernicious DHS grants appear to be designed to create a new domestic surveillance agency through their network of state & local fusion centers, and they also have a way of slipping military style equipment by local oversight bodies.

In Seattle, for example, DHS funding paid for Seattle Police Department drones and surveillance cameras. When members of the public first started asking about the cameras popping up all along a waterfront park, not even City Council knew where they had come from. Early news reports incorrectly claimed they were owned by Port of Seattle. But no, they belonged to SPD. SPD drones were also sprung on council as a fait accompli. After an  eloquent argument from the ACLU, and public outcry, the drones, at least, were boxed. The cameras still sit on their posts, supposedly nonoperational, but with their power lights glowing.

(As it happens, Seattle City Council is poised to renew approval for SPD to receive DHS grants this month. More about that here, under action number 2.)

Not a prohibition

In our training, Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington, stressed that we should stress that this legislation was not trying to prohibit the use of the technology.

First of all, that would be a very impolitic move in a state that hosts so much aerospace industry. In fact, a similar bill almost made it to the floor of the House last year but stalled in the Rules Committee, strangely, after Boeing representatives spoke up for a new and growing industry of which they are very much a part. They didn’t want regulation too soon, they said.

But that was last year, before the Summer of Snowden. The conversation has changed a bit, thankfully. While drones still could be extremely beneficial on the public’s behalf, for example, for search and rescue operations, wildfire monitoring, or other non-unconstitutional-bulk-warrantless-domestic-surveillance type uses, every legislator or staff person I spoke with was also very alive to privacy concerns.

Chats with reps

It’s a strange experience to speak to legislators as part of an official constituent visit. It can feel a bit anticlimactic, after learning and preparing, to talk to someone who is calm, friendly, attentive, and respectful, but gives you absolutely no idea what he or she thinks about the issue. Probably more experienced lobbyists can push past that, and if that’s the case, I hope to get to that point.

Even though it’s not always clear that we have made a difference at all when we speak to our elected representatives, I believe it is very important that we do it. Partly, that’s because as American citizens, we have an added layer of agency beyond what people, say, in Yemen, or Pakistan, have, when it comes to telling the US government how to behave. And partly, as we told the folks we talked to in Olympia, these technologies, along with secret laws and secret courts, threaten our ability to govern ourselves freely. We need to work together and exercise our rights while we still can.

This post is in honor of Karim Khan, an anti-drone activist and journalist has gone missing in Pakistan just days before he was due to travel to Europe to speak with Parliament members about the impact of the U.S. drone wars. Karim Khan’s brother and son were both killed in a drone strike in 2009.

Update: Karim Khan has been released, after having been kidnapped by 15-20 armed men, beaten, interrogated, and tortured.