Seattle Takes the Lead in Nationwide Surveillance vs. Privacy Debate

People all over Seattle, the United States, and the world continue to be shocked by seemingly endless revelations of warrantless surveillance, frustrated by demands that we give up ever more privacy, and outraged at being disenfranchised by the chilling effects of having our every word, association, and move tracked.

This morning, Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council members Mike O’Brien and Bruce Harrell boldly announced a new initiative[1] to begin to address the erosion of privacy in our society. Seattle is the first city in the nation to take such a proactive and farsighted step. The initiative will begin with a systematic review of the potential effects on personal privacy of all city programs and policies.

“This move will save Seattle taxpayers money by limiting spending on ideas like surveillance cameras or drones that later need to be scrapped.” -Adam Shostack

The Seattle privacy initiative comes two years after disclosures about Seattle Police Department’s acquisition of surveillance drones[2] and installation of a public surveillance camera network[3] drew public concern and protest. This debate merged with concerns about spying on political activists, unchecked use of facial-recognition technology, locational surveillance via automated license plate readers, and data sharing with private entities along with state and federal agencies.

The Seattle Privacy Coalition applauds Seattle’s leaders and legislators for their bold move to grapple with the difficult and vexing issue of protecting privacy while embracing technological innovation, and for their commitment to expanding civic involvement and bringing more voices to the table.[4]

“We hope that this effort will serve as a model for other municipal governments, and give heart to grassroots privacy advocates everywhere,” said Jan Bultmann, co-founder of SPC. “This development shows that even if our federal government is too paralyzed and beholden to corporate interests to act, we don’t have to sit back and watch our right to privacy evaporate. We can work with local governments who can still hear and respond to our voices.”

“This move by our city’s leadership is exciting,” said Christopher Sheats, Seattle resident and political activist. “It demonstrates that they’re listening to those whom they represent, and that community input is valued here in Seattle. The proposal to further implant privacy-strengthening processes in our city’s government is a refreshing reminder that civil liberties can be protected regardless of advancements in technology.”

“I am happy to see Seattle recognizing the importance of privacy to our citizens and residents,” said Adam Shostack, Seattle resident and author of Threat Modeling: Designing for Security. This move will save Seattle taxpayers money by limiting spending on ideas like surveillance cameras or drones that later need to be scrapped.”

“Meaningful transparency and accountability requires regular people’s fully informed civic involvement. I’m glad to see that the city of Seattle has heard the call and is committing itself to democratic action. This moment in Seattle is made possible because of the sacrifice and courage of the whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is exactly these kinds of changes all across America that he worked to create,” said Jacob Appelbaum, privacy journalist and co-founder of of Seattle Privacy Coalition.



  • Convene team of representatives from city departments to oversee creation and implementation of the privacy program.
  • Appoint a Privacy Advisory Committee of academic and community leaders to develop privacy principles and advise the government team.


  • Develop privacy guidance documents to insure departmental awareness and compliance.
  • Assess the current state of city compliance with the new policies.
  • Remediate gaps in compliance.
  • Establish an ongoing privacy oversight structure.

Seattle Privacy Coalition is a group of current and former Seattle residents that formed in April 2013 over a shared interest in transparency, accountability, and accuracy about the current state of privacy, security, and related issues. Our first project was to explore, document, and provide oversight relating to the Seattle Police Department’s surveillance camera network. Our mission is to urge and empower the City of Seattle to take advantage of Seattle’s leadership in technology and commitment to civil rights to lead the United States to restore and protect all people’s right to privacy.





4 Replies to “Seattle Takes the Lead in Nationwide Surveillance vs. Privacy Debate”

  1. This effort in Seattle is very encouraging. Hopefully it will serve as a model and inspiration for other cities. Since the Federal government and law enforcement at all levels have shown no interest in doing anything other than accelerating and expanding the surveillance state, it seems that local efforts may the best approach to bringing it under control.

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