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.

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