West Seattle residents were given the chance to share public testimony, mostly negative, on 12 surveillance cameras being installed along the peninsula's shores during the Seattle City Council Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology meeting on Feb. 20.
Alki residents finally have their say on shoreline surveillance
Several Alki-area residents were finally given the opportunity on Feb. 20 to publicly express dismay over a camera surveillance system coming to the shores of West Seattle as part of a $5 million federal homeland security grant to combat potential terrorist threats in Puget Sound, Elliot Bay and the Port of Seattle.
Seattle Police have taken the lead on explaining how the system of 30 cameras citywide (12 of which will be in West Seattle, mostly along Alki and Harbor Avenues) will create a “wireless mesh network security system” that several regional partners will be able to tap into for surveillance data and purposes beyond terrorist-threat monitoring.
For more background, please click here.
What follows are comments from Alki-area residents (and the director of Washington ACLU) given during a Seattle City Council Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology meeting. Additional details on the security system can be found below the quotes.
Mary Steel, who said she lived on Alki for 10 years, now living in Magnolia, was the only commenter speaking in favor of the system.
“We need to have 24-7 surveillance of the waterfront in Elliot Bay and for the city to obstruct this at this point is, in my opinion, subjecting the city to enormous liability,” Steel said. “As far as any expectation of privacy, you only have to go along the waterfront to see the number of private telescopes focused on the beach and the parameters so there is no expectation of privacy.”
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of ACLU Washington made clear her groups main concern is the government “keeping constant track of the movement of individuals throughout our city,” and not private telescopes as mentioned by Steel.
“This proposal, well it’s not just a proposal it’s being implemented, is a mesh network of cameras not just on the port, but throughout Alki, throughout the waterfront, on buses. It really is a very pervasive and invasive surveillance system that is set up. We are concerned that these cameras were purchased and implemented without any meaningful process.
“Meaningful process means an opportunity for the people to give feedback and input, but also for the people to be listened to.
“We think if you listen to what people are saying you will hear they aren’t interested in having their innocent behavior constantly monitored and recorded, stored and shared throughout the city.”
Will Washington, an Alki resident, said a camera has been installed right across the street from his home.
“I talk to everybody in this neighborhood every day, every time I get a chance and this is a big issue for us. We are really concerned about our liberties, our ability to not be monitored, what some people call a growing police state in this country, and we feel like it is happening right here in our neighborhood.
“What bothers everybody in the community bar none is the fact that this was never brought to our attention, we never had a discussion about this, and everybody is concerned about this.”
Diane Nelson, West Seattle resident
“I’m concerned because as a law-abiding citizen when I go out to Alki to walk my dog or take my family, I don’t expect to be under constant surveillance … I’m also concerned, having teenage children, who else is watching my children through these cameras.
“I love Seattle; I don’t want to lose it to a police state where I’m afraid to leave my house because every time I walk out the door someone is watching me for some reason or another. That’s not the city or country that I grew up in, and it’s not the one I want for my children either.”
Robert Burner, Alki resident
“Coming from a law enforcement family, I am disappointed that a choice was made to purchase this technology that breeds complacency on the job instead of recognizing a great opportunity for potential community programs to educate citizens.”
John Loftus, 25 years on Alki
“My wife and I have lived on Alki Beach for 25 years. It is not a high crime area, I look out at that beach 24-7 … Alki Beach is flanked by a high density residential neighborhood and most of the residents seldom close their blinds because we have a 24-hour view and nobody is there to see you except the ferry boats, and they are too far away. These neighbors represent hundreds of sets of eyes at any given time and anyone that would consider doing wrong realizes that it is highly likely that someone is watching. We already have this very effective type of surveillance and don’t need a camera to monitor the beach …”
Loftis also expressed concern over a “bikini cam” positioned to look out at the Alki Beach and volleyball courts, where minimalist swimsuits are the norm on sunny days. “I don’t believe that anyone could truly tell me with a straight face that this is just a coincidence. One of the women could have a bomb in her bikini top I guess.”
Moving out of public comment into the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology roundtable with city councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Bruce Harrell, Seattle Police Chief Clark Kimerer and Det. Monty Moss joined the conversation to answer new questions on the program. Here are some highlights from the discussion:
- Kimerer opened his remarks by stating Seattle’s port is the sixth largest in the world, and considered a prime terrorist target “in a very, very dangerous time.” Councilman Harrell agreed with the assessment, but steered the conversation back to the issue at hand: how those cameras operate and capture everyday civilian activity on the streets and sidewalks lining Elliot Bay and Puget Sound.
- Kimerer and Det. Monty Moss (largely in charge of implementing the camera system) said the cameras will be able to swivel for a 310 degree view (as the poles they are attached to will cut out certain angles), but reiterated their commitment to “privacy masking” each camera, meaning they will put a black box over any windows or private areas so they are not recorded to begin with. Councilmember O’Brien later expressed concern that with so many law enforcement and municipal services having access to the “wireless mesh” system, who’s to say someone might not access the system and remove masking. Moss said the system will record every person who accesses the system, so if a problem arose they could find out who the culprit was. O’Brien asked how often masking would be checked to ensure it had not been messed with. No clear answer to that one.
- As part of the wireless mesh technology, people from law enforcement and other government agencies with access to the cameras will be able to rotate and zoom manually, Moss said, adding “We will be able to hold people accountable for misuse,” through system access recordings. He also said “very few people” will have access to the cameras.
- Cameras will have a “home position” they return to after a user swivels a camera for a specific purpose.
- No facial recognition technology will be used with the cameras.
- Cameras do not have audio recording.
- O’Brien asked if the public or third party agencies will have access to privacy masking. Moss said he was “open” to the public and other agencies, including the ACLU, having the ability to inspect privacy masking for each camera, but said that decision was ultimately up to SPD leadership.
- At this time, Moss said the plan is to keep recordings for 30 days and keep an audit log for 90 days (the audit log is a recording of who accessed the system and what they did while logged on).
- Moss and Kimerer said SPD hopes to have the cameras operational by March 31, but they will delay that goal until “all questions are answered” from city government and the public.
- As the discussion wrapped up, Harrell said moving forward he hopes all information on what a given technology will be used for will be given up front, likely in reference to a SPD presentation on the system in May of 2012 where SPD officials only talked about surveillance of the port for terrorist threat purposes, with no mention of also using the cameras to keep an eye on the streets and sidewalks.
- O’Brien asked that SPD expand public outreach as they move towards going live with the system.