With renewed concerns about the reach of the federal government’s surveillance, the chair of Seattle City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee wants to strengthen the city’s laws when it comes to warrantless cameras on City of Seattle property and assets like Seattle City Light’s utility poles.
“At least I think that the members of the public agree that Seattle must stand up to any kind of big brother idea, and also I would like for the city to protect its residents without having any real expectations for cooperation from federal agencies,” District 3 representative and committee chair Kshama Sawant said.
“I don’t think we should expect that in normal circumstances, certainly, we should not expect that from a Trump administration.”
The Seattle Privacy Coalition began asking city departments about cameras on SCL’s poles in July 2015. Weeks later the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms confirmed it was the agency behind two cameras installed high-up on light poles at 23rd and Union and 23rd and Jackson. SCL spokesperson Scott Thomsen told CHS then that since SCL did not own the equipment or assist in gathering the surveillance, there was no reason to notify City Council. “We were merely allowing them to use the poles,” Thomsen said, adding that verbal agreements are within the SCL general manager’s authority. Months later, a FBI-led task force arrested nine people in a Central District drug and firearm investigation.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Jim Baggs of Seattle City Light told committee members that SCL will no longer agree to have surveillance cameras placed on their poles and that the city is not currently aware of any cameras deployed in Seattle. At this time, Baggs said if a third-party such at ATF inquired about putting a camera on an SCL pole, the agency would be referred to the Seattle Police Department. If a camera is discovered, Baggs said SCL would ask if SPD had permitted it. If yes, it would stay up. If no, the camera would be taken down.
“To my knowledge, there are no cameras in place on City Light poles at this point in time,” Baggs said.
But in a follow-up exchange by the department on Twitter, it was made clear that cameras may very well be deployed — Seattle City Light has just stopped tracking:
— jseattle (@jseattle) January 24, 2017
Federal authorities began sharing information about the cameras with SCL in 2013 to ensure crews wouldn’t take them down, but the FBI recently cut off communication with Seattle City Light, Sawant said.
“I’m not sure how we would know that they are putting cameras up or not because they’re not communicating with City Light anymore,” Sawant said. “… To my mind, that illustrates why we need to strengthen the laws.”
Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the 2013 ordinance as it is written may not apply to federal agencies, but it would apply to the SCL putting up surveillance technology.
In 2010, a controversy over privacy and SPD policies lead to the eventual removal of surveillance cameras from Cal Anderson Park while SPD’s cameras at other area facilities remained in place. In 2013, SPD took down its powerful “mesh network” that had the potential to map the movement of digital devices throughout the city. Then-Chief Jim Pugel said the city needed to have a “vigorous debate” on such surveillance activities. West Seattle is another neighborhood where SPD cameras became part of that “vigorous debate.”
While cities don’t have authority over federal agencies, council members are working on strengthening legislation to ensure city agencies are held accountable and to further identify requirements, such as a warrant, for surveillance cameras and other technologies. City departments shouldn’t comply with any federal agency requests without a warrant. Any cameras that don’t meet these requirements need to be taken down, Sawant said.
“Seattle has declared itself a sanctuary city,” Sawant said. “I don’t believe that the City Council should simply say that ‘Well, we don’t have any control over the federal authorities.’ We do have control over whether city departments comply with federal authorities or not.”