Ty Swenson
One of the surveillance cameras recently installed by regional law enforcement to better monitor terrorist threats coming into Puget Sound, but drawing concern on what else they may monitor. This camera is located at Charles Richey Sr. Viewpoint along Beach Drive in West Seattle.

Shoreline surveillance cameras spur debate

Surveillance cameras are popping up along Seattle’s waterfront, including on light poles along Harbor and Alki Avenues in West Seattle, as part of a $5 million federal homeland security grant to monitor for terrorist threats coming into the Port of Seattle, prompting concern about a lack of input from the public and worries on what else the cameras will monitor.

According to Seattle Police, the grant will cover 30 cameras (operational by this spring) that will create a “wireless mesh network security system” that several regional partners will be able to tap into for surveillance data, including the Coast Guard, Seattle Police, the Port of Seattle, King County, and transit services. Those agencies will be able to access the camera feeds in real time.

After the grant came through, Seattle Police presented the plan to Seattle’s City Council in May of 2012, and council gave them the blessing to move forward with a unanimous vote. During the briefing, SPD’s homeland security grant coordinator Chris Steel said the primary goal of the system is to “keep an eye on the port facilities within the Port of Seattle Region.” SPD Asst. Chief of Special Operations Paul McDonagh added the need for cameras was in response to the threat of terrorists bringing an attack to Seattle’s shores via the port – be it chemical, biological, nuclear, etc.

There was no mention at that time of how the cameras might be used beyond the specter of a terrorist threat to monitor everyday people along the shoreline, and that’s where things get complicated.

In an interview with Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge, SPD Det. Monty Moss said criminal activity (not related to terrorism) captured by the cameras could be used in prosecution. He did add that they plan to “mask” the cameras from peering into windows.

It brings up the surveillance debate between those who say they have a right not to be constantly monitored by their government, and those who say the public safety benefits of capturing criminals in the act outweigh that right. “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then why are you worried?” is a common argument from the latter camp.

The plan has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to step into the conversation with concern over creating a “Big Brother” scenario where every day citizens are being watched by government-controlled cameras.

In a recent ACLU blog post concerning a very similar topic in SPD’s potential use of flying drones in police activity, Doug Honig wrote, “In a democratic society, people should be able to go about their daily activities without their movements, activities, and associations being recorded and tracked by the government. Americans do not want to live in a ‘surveillance society.’”

As of Feb. 2, city officials, including Mayor Mike McGinn, have been quiet on the topic as citizens and citywide media look for answers. One of those questions is why the public was not notified or reached out to for feedback before the camera installation began, and whether that opportunity will present itself before the system is fully operational.

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