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.

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.

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!