Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the ACLU, and privacy advocates are championing an effort to regulate and remove surveillance cameras they claim have been installed without the city’s permission or knowledge.
The cameras were installed by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to help the agencies carry out various investigations, according to Sawant.
“I think that it is totally unacceptable for the city of Seattle to be complicit in federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies surveilling Seattle’s public spaces,” she said at a meeting of the Council’s Energy and Environment Committee Tuesday. “As a sanctuary city, we should not be filming our general population and we certainly should not be sending that data to law enforcement agencies now being run by the Trump administration. Many find this chilling and the Council has a duty to protect constituents from being surveilled.”
The cameras were first spotted by Lee Colleton, a Systems Administrator for Google and co-founder of the Seattle Privacy Coalition. Colleton spoke during the meeting’s public comments period Tuesday and the Coalition’s president, Phil Mocek sat on the panel discussion.
Colleton made inquiries with Seattle City Light (SCL) about the cameras, which were installed on the agency’s poles, but wasn’t able to get a straight answer. Eventually, the Seattle Privacy Coalition filed a public records request to the City of Seattle asking for information about the cameras locations.
The activists were able to obtain some emails discussing the cameras, including one that indicated SCL asked ATF to install a camera to investigate restaurant workers suspected of dumping grease down a manhole.
Mocek and his team discovered, through the emails, that someone at Seattle City Light was keeping an inventory of the cameras. The Privacy Coalition placed a public records request for that information to try to find out where the cameras were located and who commissioned them. That request was blocked by a temporary restraining order in June and last week, a federal judge issued a final order barring the city from releasing that information.
The purpose of today’s meetings was to discuss ways to strengthen Seattle’s laws against government surveillance and protect civilian privacy.
Sawant is also hoping that the updated legislation will allow the City of Seattle to remove some or all of the cameras that were installed without its permission. Shankar Narayan, of Washington’s ACLU, warned that retroactive action on the cameras may not be possible but stressed the importance of fortifying laws going forward.
Councilmember Debora Juarez asked how far the City could go to fight surveillance when the expectation of privacy diminishes in public spaces.
Both Narayan and Mocek pushed back, saying that government-owned surveillance cameras that were not strictly limited to specific investigations over designated periods of time went too far.
“It’s reasonable for me to expect that I can walk down the street with a friend having a quiet conversation and that there is not a parabolic microphone mounted on the roof recording us,” said Mocek. “And it’s reasonable to expect that there’s not a camera looking up your skirt when you’re sitting on a park bench. And it’s reasonable, I think, to expect that our government does not have a series of cameras or sensors tracking me from one place to another such that any time I step outside of the shelter of my home, my actions are recorded and cataloged in case they’re useful against me later.”
Councilmembers doubted whether it would get federal agencies to play ball.
They agreed that the best way to protect citizens’ privacy rights was to pass better regulations and ensure municipal agencies don’t allow feds to install unwarranted cameras. Sawant and her team will be working on updated legislation to accomplish those goals over the next few weeks.
“I would like the city to protect its residents without having any real expectation of cooperation from federal agencies,” she said. “I don’t think we should expect that in normal circumstances, certainly, we should not expect that from a Trump administration … Instead, I would rather focus on what we can do to strengthen our laws and make sure that any surveillance equipment that does not have a warrant, City departments don’t comply with federal agencies on such equipment. It’s very simple.”