City Council looks to limit SPD after public outcry ends another spy cam program

Public outcry ended the 2010 use of surveillance cameras in Cal Anderson Park, grounded Seattle Police Department drones and has thrown into question the use of 30 waterfront cameras. That’s a lot of surveillance gear headed for the bargain bin. Wednesday, Seattle’s City Council will consider legislation requiring approval before any similar equipment is acquired again.

“When should a free society allow personal activities that occur in public to come under 24/7 surveillance?” writes City Council member Nick Licata. 

Licata wrote about the proposal in his Urban Politics blog.

We must always strive for a balance that provides for safety without compromising the principles of our democracy.  To try and best strike that balance, I am proposing legislation that requires departments seeking to acquire certain surveillance equipment to first obtain City Council approval as well as requiring that they develop protocols to be passed by the Council to guide their proper use, including retention, storage, and access of any data that the cameras capture.

The debate over the spy cams includes 2008, when the council voted to authorize a pilot project of 12 cameras in four city parks, including Cal Anderson Park. In 2010, CHS reported on the cameras’ removal, as well as the ongoing battle over the cameras between privacy and civil liberties advocates and city officials who felt the technology helped deter crime in Cal Anderson even though a city auditor’s study said there was no measurable impact from the technology’s placement in the park. 

Back then, the city set out to find community members to be part of a citizens’ board to advise on matters of technology and communications. Still, the Seattle Police Department recently installed the 30 cameras along the Seattle waterfront, from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens.

However, following a hearing on the SPD drone program, which CHS reported was also cut after public decries, Mayor Mike McGinn told The Seattle Times that the cameras would not be activated.

“The system will not be operated until a thorough public vetting of the system has been completed and the public has provided input,” McGinn said in prepared statement.

Licata says the committee didn’t support the surveillance cameras, which were installed in recreational and residential zones, and doesn’t think similar camera use will be supported in the future.

If the cameras that are part of the Port Security Surveillance Camera Project have the capacity to deliberately or inadvertently capture the activity of individuals on public or private property, under those circumstances, the legislation that I am working on would require that those cameras would first have to be approved by the Council and the Council would also have to approve protocols for their use.  If, on the other hand, they are aimed strictly on infrastructure and the immediate perimeter for security purposes, then my legislation would not apply.

A hearing on the legislation will be held Wednesday afternoon:

Seattle – The Seattle City Council understands the public’s concern with the use of surveillance cameras, whether they are drones or security cameras on the shoreline. On March 6, Councilmembers Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell will introduce new legislation to restrict the use of surveillance equipment unless used under certain circumstances, detailed in the legislation, by the City. The City will have an open and transparent discussion on the use of security cameras throughout the City.

Council Bill 117730 will require all City departments to obtain Council approval prior to acquiring surveillance equipment of any type. It also requires Council review and approval of department protocols for operating the equipment and managing the data collected. The respective department must also proactively conduct outreach in each community in which the department intends to use the equipment. 

WHAT:           Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee


WHEN:           Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at 2 p.m.


WHERE:         Council Chambers, second floor

                        Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue, Seattle 98104


WHO:              Councilmember Bruce A. Harrell

                        Councilmember Nick Licata

                        Councilmember Mike O’Brien

For an in-depth look at the legislation, check out Capitol Hill privacy advocate Phil Mocek’s analysis here.

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9 thoughts on “City Council looks to limit SPD after public outcry ends another spy cam program

  1. I don’t understand why everyone is so opposed to surveillance cameras in Seattle. They have them everywhere in London. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about. If you’re dealing drugs, mugging people, painting graffiti, well then yes, you should be opposed to the cameras.

  2. Im not a huge fan of camera’s everywhere but you have zero expectation of privacy when wandering around in public. Also the same folks who freak out about this stuff are the same ones who want to stick camera’s on cops heads. Sounds good but think about it, Cops often see people in the very worst moments of their lives. They are in living rooms when people are bleeding, naked, screaming, drunk, you name it. That little camera will film it all, inside of a home! It is all public record at that point and has to be disclosed if requested. So, if you are involved in a DV incident and cops show up you would be filmed sitting on your couch on your underwear, possibly with a nose bleed, receiving medical care, explaining what happened…all on film. No way do I want that.

  3. See, that is problem thinking:
    If you are doing nothing wrong you got nothing to hide.
    But, it comes down to PRIVACY. Do you have curtains in your home? Yes, but why? Are you trying to hide something?
    Hey, you don’t mind if I come into your home and look around. You do mind if I dig through your stuff. What are you trying to hide? … Nice underwear by the way. So, Who’s sex toy is this?? *snicker*
    Oh, and where are your credit card bills for the last 3 years?
    With the craptastic laws that we have on the books. It is very hard to understand what is illegal and what is legal.
    I have a friend who is not the cleanest person in the world. She lives in a 5 bedroom house with her family of 5 and 2 roommates. If law enforcement was to rummage through her place. While she is doing nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. The conditions of her home could cause some alarm for concern. The law enforcement officers would be ‘forced’ to call CPS services. …. But, I mean, she has nothing to hide. She isn’t doing anything illegal.
    With surveillance cameras it comes down to personal security. Just like how I do not want random people looking in my windows nor do I want anyone watching or tracking me as I walk or drive down the street.

  4. There is a key point, regardless of whether or not you approve of the installation of surveillance cameras, that being that the public (who PAYS for all of this expensive equipment) has a right not only to be notified IN ADVANCE of the implementation of surveillance but also to approve the oft-times ridiculous price tags associated with this stuff. I’m all in favor of public input and approval/disapproval.

  5. Joseph, you’re mixing apples and oranges. No one is talking about any kind of surveillance into private homes/apartments. But cameras in public places are a different matter altogether and I think are a good idea in certain locations, where there is a reasonable possibility of catching some bad guys. However, I think it’s also a good idea to have the City Council authorize their installation….not only because of the cost involved, but also because the police should not be allowed to put them anywhere they please.

    It really mystifies me that some people are so opposed to cameras in public, because if you’re not behaving illegally they are not going to impact your life.

  6. Bob, imagine what your life would be like if every little thing you said or did once you were outside of your home was stored away forever. I’m not talking about criminal or unethical behavior; I’m talking about just going about your daily life, doing what you do–perhaps being goofy with your friends and family, making off-hand remarks about whatever is on your mind at the moment, taking photos of a building you find interesting, complaining about the actions of the U.S. Government, or meeting in a public park with a reporter who’s working on a story about government malfeasance. Imagine that there was no such thing as a private conversation once you stepped out your door, since every thing that happened out there was recorded. I think it would be stressful. I think it would hinder us from developing healthy relationships with other people. I think it would stifle political dissent. That’s not the kind of life I want for you, our neighbors, and me.

    That I step outside the privacy of my home is no justification for our government to stockpile information about where I’ve been and when I was there. That I’m walking down the street, having a quiet conversation with my friend in public is not justification for a pole-mounted parabolic microphone to record our otherwise private conversation. It’s not justification for high-resolution, zoom-lens, cameras to record our movements and pipe those recordings off to a storage facility where computers can come along later and perform facial recognition to make a record of where I was an whom I was with. It’s not justification for TSA-style body scanner machines to look under my clothing to determine if I’m carrying metal objects down the street. The only thing holding us back from such systems now is the current cost of them, and those costs are dropping rapidly.

    I strongly believe that unless there is reason to suspect me of wrongdoing, my government should leave me alone to go about my lawful business, not stop me and ask for ID, not analyze my behavior for something suspicious (like photography), and not record all my activities just in case those recordings are useful later. In the United States, we’re not supposed to investigate all the good people just to recognize a few more of the bad people.

  7. Hey Phil, thank you for your usual thoughtful comments. I don’t totally agree, however. I am in favor of cameras in selective locations (with prior approval by the City Council), where the SPD thinks there is a reasonable chance they will detect some criminal activity….and where the camera footage is monitored and carefully reviewed, not just taken and stored. The reality would be, as much as for cost considerations as anything else, that the vast majority of our streets would not have cameras on them, so you would feel free to walk around most places without fear of being filmed.

    I am totally against any collection of audio data in our public places….that definitely crosses the line. But I am not aware that this is being considered….do you know of any city which is actually doing this, or are you being a tiny bit paranoid?

  8. I agree with you and I’ve been to London as well many times and feel safer with the cameras, not that London is all that dangerous. The violence and muggings in the park are reason enough for them. So why is there so much opposition to them? Because this is Seattle. What else do you expect here?

  9. Bob: ShotSpotter and other gunshot-locator systems record audio. ShotSpotter’s systems have “a minimum 600-foot radius range and each having the ability to stream video.” Fortunately, money for this system was removed from Seattle’s 2013 budget, but they’re in use plenty of other places.