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Sawant wants to strengthen Seattle’s laws against warrantless surveillance

One of the ATF cameras installed along 23rd Ave. (Photo: CHS)

One of the ATF cameras installed along 23rd Ave. (Photo: CHS)

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:

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.”

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29 thoughts on “Sawant wants to strengthen Seattle’s laws against warrantless surveillance

    • Makes total sense to me as well. People have no expectation of privacy while in public. Does she want the red light cameras taken down as well? She will do absolutely anything to stay in the news…..Anything.

    • Darin: It is entirely reasonable to expect some privacy while in public. It’s reasonable to expect to have a quiet conversation with your friend while walking down a public street without someone listening in with a parabolic microphone from a rooftop. It’s reasonable to expect to sit down on a park bench without a camera looking up your skirt. It’s reasonable to expect to leave the shelter of your home and go about your lawful business in public without our government recording where you go, when, and with whom.

    • BB: Studies show surveillance cameras don’t reduce crime. At best, they move it elsewhere. And as it seems you have observed, those the feds installed on our utility poles near 23rd and Union didn’t have the affect for which you hope.

    • Phil, I definitely support safe consumption sites. My stipulation is that we’re smart about where we place them, so that they’re close enough for people to use but aren’t placed in areas where we don’t want the surrounding neighborhoods to be overwhelmed with dope zombies and their resulting trash and street disorder. SoDo seems like a great place.

    • I have no doubt cameras do not deter crime, but they can help in the process of providing evidence to prosecutors in order to bring violent criminals to justice.

    • Equating surveillance cameras set up to monitor a crime hot spot to a sex offender taking up skirt photos is absurd. Nice try Phil. I love it when people sight “studies” with no back up. Phil is as bad as our new President and his alternative facts.

      Surveillance cameras do work and here are just a few studies that prove that. I also included a few that prove crime displacement or as Phil said, “At best, they move it elsewhere”, is another lie.

      “Analyzing the Influence of Micro-Level Factors on CCTV Camera Effect”
      Piza, Eric L.; Caplan, Joel M.; Kennedy, Leslie W. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, June 2014, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp. 237-264.

      “Public Area CCTV and Crime Prevention: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”
      Welsh, Brandon C.; Farrington, David P. Justice Quarterly, October 2009, Vol. 26, No. 4.

      “Here’s Looking at You: An Evaluation of Public CCTV Cameras and Their Effects on Crime and Disorder”
      McLean, Sarah J.; Worden, Robert E.; Kim, MoonSun. Criminal Justice Review, July 2013. doi: 10.1177/0734016813492415.

      “Measuring the Crime Displacement and Diffusion of Benefit Effects of Open-street CCTV in South Korea”
      Park, Hyeon Ho; Oh, Gyeong Seok; Paek, Seung Yeop. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, September 2012, Vol. 40, Issue 3, 179-191. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlcj.2012.03.003.

      “Does CCTV Displace Crime?”
      Waples, Sam; Gil, Martin; Fisher, Peter. Criminology and Criminal Justice, May 2009, Vol. 9, No. 2, 207-224. doi: 10.1177/1748895809102554.

    • Matthew, I made no such comparison. I disputed Darin’s assertion that we have no reasonable expectation of privacy when in public and provided examples of typical scenarios in which a person in public reasonably expects some privacy.

      Do you believe that a quiet conversation between two people who are walking down a sidewalk out of earshot of other people can reasonably be expected to be a private conversation?

  1. Seems paradoxical to preach against “Big Brother” government on one hand, while on the other being Seattle’s biggest proponent of expanding and growing the power of government.

  2. Courts have firmly established that there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces. Sawant is once again finding a windmill to tilt at. Wonder what is being neglected in her district for stuff like this.

    • Paul, do you expect a quiet conversation you have on a public sidewalk, out of earshot of anyone else, to be private? Would you be comfortable with publication of a log of when your home is occupied and when it is empty that was created by way of observation of that which is visible from the public street?

    • see also: U.S. v. Vargus (government installed a pole camera overlooking a defendant’s front yard and secretly recorded for more than a month, court found the video surveillance unconstitutional and suppressed all the video evidence and any other evidence derived from it, government appealed, court dismissed appeal)

    • Correct me if I am mistaken, but CCTV records only video (by law) and not audio?

      So nobody would be listening to your private conversation anyway.

  3. Finally, an issue I can agree with Sawant about! And to those who see no problem with the feds putting cameras on our light polls without tell us, keep in mind that if they can do it anywhere, they can do it everywhere; if they can do it for one reason, they can do it for any reason. The new president has declared that he is a “law and order” president. So what if his administration decides to put them up all over the city in order to detect any illegal behavior? For example, marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law, so what if they placed cameras outside of marijuana shops to track everyone who enters and leaves? And how would you feel if they were used to track down and round up illegal immigrants? I think this is a very dangerous precedent and applaud the councilmember for finally getting one right.

    • Phil – the ATF’s camera was accross the street at the Mid Town center pointing south not north towards us and there was another building in between. We have our own cameras. They were in place before Ike’s and definitely helped drop the crime rate. -Ike

    • Hey, Bob. Since you have nothing to hide, you won’t mind handing over the password to your e-mail accounts (all of them, not just the one you use for “respectable” purpose) so I can look through it and publish anything interesting I find, right? Same for your library borrowing records–your interests are anyone’s business, right? How about your Web browsing history: nothing to hide there? There are no curtains on your home’s windows, right? You’d let anyone listen in on conversations with your psychiatrist, your lawyer, your medical doctor, and your family members? You wouldn’t mind if we kept a log of when your home is occupied and when it is empty for publication, right? And a log of who visits? You’ll go ahead and list all your Muslim friends and acquaintances, immigration status of everyone you know, etc., when Trump’s people ask, right? You have nothing to hide, right?

    • Phil, no one aside from high up participants in organized crime or terrorism are subjected to what you list. Citizens in general just aren’t. The number of people and expense involved in such surveillance would not be spent on any average citizen. Corporations collect far more personal information about you (Facebook, Amazon etc) and y’all seem just fine with that.

    • That I set foot outside my home does not indicate consent to tracking of my movements, words, and associations by our government. That Bob is, Paul is, or I am in public is not justification for performing surveillance of us. This does not indicate that we are hiding nefarious activity or that we are paranoid.

      I want local control over surveillance equipment installed and used on our public streets. I want courts to approve surveillance, for minimization procedures to be followed so that information is not collected individuals who are not the specific targets of surveillance, and if it is collected incidental to targeted surveillance, I want it purged. I want equipment removed after the conclusion of an investigation, and I want public notice of what surveillance was performed after the risk of jeopardizing an investigation passes. I do not want data collected by such equipment to be slurped up into NSA’s Utah Data Center. I want any material support provided by municipal government to outside agencies’ for their surveillance programs to be budgeted and accounted for. I want us to provide informed consent for any public surveillance performed in Seattle.

      I would not accept a system whereby I was required to notify the federal government of my whereabouts, and I will not accept the federal government installing cameras to monitor the whereabouts of people going about their lawful business. If they are using these systems for targeted surveillance, then there should be no opposition to warrants, minimization procedures, sunset clauses, and public notification after the fact.

      None of these desires indicates that I have anything more to hide than anyone else does or that I am paranoid–they indicate that my business is my business, not the the federal government’s.

    • Hey, Phil…..thought you might respond!

      With the examples you give, you are grossly exaggerating the risk. The issue here is simply the use of CCTV cameras on our streets, not the rest of the “privacy invasions” you mention. Apparently you believe in a “slippery slope” argument here…..kind of like the pro-gun people object to every little change in our gun control laws, no matter how modest and reasonable.

      Do you deny that the cameras capture video-only and not audio? And do you deny that they have been helpful in bringing criminals to justice?

    • I deny that only paranoid people or those with something bad to hide would resist the proliferation of public surveillance cameras installed and operated by the federal government (Trump administration, no less), details of which are barred from release to the public–even after any related investigations conclude–by an injunction obtained by the US DOJ.

    • Bob: We aren’t allowed to know the capabilities of FBI’s or ATF’s surveillance equipment. Some cameras include microphones; some do not. Neither agency has cited any particular use of the data obtained via this program, so I am definitely not in a position to confirm or deny their utility. When our city auditor studied the cameras Nickels had installed in Cal Anderson Park years ago, they were not able to detect any real or perceived change in crime there for the duration of the pilot program, so we removed the cameras.

  4. Mothers for Police Accountability supported the cameras to help lower crime against their African American family members, if that isn’t too inconvenient to add to this discussion.

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