Seattle’s operating surveillance ordinance still needs fixing

In January 2013, the West Seattle Blog reported on the surveillance cameras being installed along Alki Beach. Their continued coverage of the cameras and wireless mesh radios is well worth a read for a detailed background on this post.

I recently noted that one of the wireless mesh nodes was transmitting, in contradiction of the City’s repeated assurances that the network was “turned off,” while I was attending a protest outside the King County courthouse in City Hall Park near 3rd Ave and Yesler Way. My post to Twitter caught the attention of the Seattle Police Department, who promptly shut off the node and posted a blog entry and tweeted about it. The following tweets appeared on Twitter that day, with much more commentary on the original post (which you can see if you click on the date stamp below.)

Seattle Police officer Sean Whitcomb’s reply on the SPD blotter makes a misleading claim, that “The rogue node, while producing a visible signal, was not being operated.” This isn’t only misleading because radio waves are invisible. They’re also not visible because the Service Set IDentifier (SSID or “network name”) of these mesh nodes gives no indication that they’re operated by the police department. It’s not the sort of thing that a nontechnical person would notice, even if they saw it listed on a computer or mobile device when they were trying to find a wireless network. It’s also misleading to claim that the node was “not being operated”.

The device may not have been switched on intentionally, it may not have seen any active traffic from SPD vehicles or those of other city departments while it was powered on and transmitting, but a claim that it wasn’t operating is the same category of the “non-operational” SPD cameras installed throughout the city. The glowing blue light indicates that power is applied to the cameras, just as the blinking orange and green lights indicate that mesh network nodes have power and some sort of activity. According to the Seattle Police’s definition of “operating”, these networked surveillance cameras aren’t “in use” because the digital video recording system to which they’re attached isn’t capturing any of their video feeds.

However, as Mayor Murray opined in an interview on the matter, the cameras and their mesh network could be switched on if the City decided they were needed for some sort of emergency (the Boston Marathon bombing was mentioned, but any emergency could do). Now, this mayor may have no intention of using these cameras and Seattle’s current police force might not intend to use their mesh network to monitor the movements of every active WiFi and Bluetooth device in the city (see The Stranger’s article You Are A Rogue Device), but we’re a country of laws, not of men.

Seattle should revise its ordinance regarding the installation and use of surveillance equipment. We made recommendations to the city council regarding Ordinance 124142 in March and this matter still needs to be addressed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.