Seattle Takes First Step Toward Limiting the Surveillance State

SEATTLE (Aug. 1, 2017) – Yesterday, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance taking the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into the broader national surveillance state.

This offers a blueprint we can follow in Lexington.

Councilmember Lorena González sponsored CB 118930. Under the new law, city departments, including the Seattle P.D., must get council approval before acquiring surveillance technology. The council must also approve a surveillance impact report for the technology before acquisition.

The ordinance creates a process for public input and review of any surveillance program. Before the department can seek council approval, it must complete one or more community meetings with opportunity for public comment and written response.

“The council may direct the department to conduct additional community engagement before approval, or after approval as a condition of approval. The community meeting or meetings should be accessible, be noticed in multiple languages, be held in communities impacted by the proposed acquisition, and collect information about potential disparate impacts on disadvantaged groups.”

The ACLU of Washington backed the measure. It described the overall goals of the ordinance in a press release.

  • Cover acquisition of all surveillance technologies, including equipment, hardware, and software.
  • Give agencies flexibility to use technologies in emergencies where there is a danger of death or serious bodily harm, but ensure that flexibility is not abused to acquire surveillance technologies without oversight.
  • Create transparent report-backs so that the public knows how surveillance technologies are being used.
  • Create enforcement mechanisms that allow the public to enforce surveillance rules in court.

The push for passage of this ordinance in Seattle was part of a broader initiative to confront the surveillance state at the local level. The Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative kicked off last fall when local government officials in multiple cities announced plans to launch legislative efforts to pass ordinances taking this first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies.

Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s use of stingray devices on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

Passage of this ordinance in Seattle will prevent local police from obtaining technology without public knowledge, and provide an avenue for concerned residents to oppose and stop the purchase of spy gear.

Impact on Federal Programs

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

This new Seattle ordinance takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.

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