A demonstration on how Seattle Police will use black boxes to keep their shoreline surveillance cameras from peering in to private citizens' windows and anywhere else they are not legally allowed to look.

Seattle Police provide more details on shoreline surveillance


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When people started noticing surveillance cameras appearing on light poles from Lincoln Park to Harbor Island along the West Seattle shoreline, the questions inevitably arose: “Who are they watching?” and “Who are ‘they’ exactly?”

As the Herald reported last week, the cameras are paid for by a $5 million federal Homeland Security grant with the primary purpose of keeping a close eye on potential terrorist threats coming in to the Port of Seattle, and the “wireless mesh” system can be tapped into by several agencies, from the Coast Guard to Port of Seattle to King County and Seattle law enforcement agencies.

The system will consist of 30 cameras (to see their location, please download the map at top of story), 160 wireless access points, and “miles” of fiber optic cable, according to SPD, creating “a dedicated wireless network and view of Seattle’s shoreline during emergency responses …,” meaning it can be used beyond the scope of terrorist activity. That will include law enforcement’s ability to use any inadvertent recordings as evidence in the courts. So, if an assault or drug deal happened to be captured, for example, it becomes evidence if an arrest is made.

The ire, voiced by citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, arises out of privacy concerns in creating a 1984-like surveillance society where the government has an eye on its populace at all times. Those concerns were further exacerbated by Seattle City Light accidentally positioning two cameras along Alki to look directly at apartments, rather than the water (they have since been repositioned).

Seattle Police have taken the lead on implementing and explaining the system of 30 cameras (10 of which are on West Seattle shoreline), and their “Mesh Network Technical Lead” Detective Monty Moss is the spokesman charged with that task.

In a video posted to SPD’s Blotter website (and embedded above), Moss explained that all cameras are stretched out along the west-facing shoreline of Seattle, and the positions were chosen “because we are trying to find multiple uses for these cameras so they are not deployed just for one particular use.”

Moss said command post ability to use the cameras to update first responders on a developing situation is a big advantage. Regarding inadvertent recordings, he said the advantage “is just to gather as much effective evidence as we can if we do record a crime that’s occurred.”

To deflect invasion of privacy concerns, Moss said the cameras have no audio recordings or ability to see in the dark. He said each camera will be inspected prior to implementation and black boxes will be programmed into the recording to make sure it does not peer into windows or anywhere else authorities do not have a right to look.

“What’s nice about this is that we are applying that function at the camera, so when the camera feed comes back to the DVR, the DVR is only seeing what’s been sent from the camera,” Moss said. “There is no way to see beyond that privacy masking.”

“We are interested to hear from the community and I feel like we are being responsive in trying to find that balance of accomplishing the mission that we desire with these cameras with the privacy concerns the public is bringing up.”,” Moss concluded, referencing the quick adjustment of cameras along Alki that were pointed towards apartments rather than the water as an example.

Moss said he hopes to have the cameras up and running by March 31.

UPDATE for 2/7: On a similar note, drones scratched by Mayor McGinn
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced on Thursday, Feb. 7, that he is scratching the unmanned drone program and shipping them back to the vendor.

Here is his statement:

“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority. The vehicles will be returned to the vendor.”

Simultaneous with the surveillance camera discussion was a continuing debate over SPD’s use of unmanned flying drones with cameras, also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The department had already procured two drones with another federal Homeland Security grant, and presented their proposal to the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee on Feb. 6.

SPD has written that the drones will not be used for random surveillance, but in specific situations including HAZMAT response, search and rescue operations, video/photography of crime scenes, “significant” traffic wreck investigations, and disaster responses. Any other uses would have to be backed by a warrant.

Reporting on the Feb. 6 meeting, Christine Clarridge with the Seattle Times wrote there is an ongoing dispute over the issue of inadvertent recordings with drones (and whether that data can be used as evidence). Clarridge reported Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who presided over the meeting where disgruntled audience members rallied against a police state, asked SPD to further refine their proposal in advance of another committee vote on Feb. 20.

The discussion came to an end on Feb. 7 when Mayor McGinn announced he was scrapping the drone program and sending the contraptions back to the vendor.

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