An SPD car at the 2017 Fiestas Patrias Parade in South Park

Seattle Has Ignored Concerns Over SPD Use of Surveillance Technologies, Community Members Say

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The Seattle City Council reviewed and unanimously approved six surveillance technologies used by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) at a Feb. 28 meeting as part of a process mandated by Seattle’s 2017 Surveillance Ordinance. Community members said the Council failed to incorporate concerns and recommendations outlined by advocates, including the City’s own Surveillance Advisory Working Group

Under the surveillance ordinance, the Seattle IT department must examine any new surveillance technologies the City uses to assess risks to people’s privacy. It is also retroactively evaluating technologies the City government already uses. This latest batch of surveillance tools under review is labeled 4b and composed of SPD technologies. These include cellphone and laptop extraction tools, a geospatial analysis technology called GeoTime, remotely operated vehicles, crash retrieval forensics, and hidden GPS trackers and cameras.

A number of these tools present significant privacy risks for community members, especially those at risk of greater policing and surveillance, ACLU Washington Tech Policy Lead Jennifer Lee said. 

“Surveillance technologies always increase police power,” they said. “There’s a close connection with increased surveillance infrastructure and harm caused by policing and racial bias in policing.”

Lee, who is a co-chair of the surveillance working group, said the City Council hasn’t incorporated many of the recommendations they made.

At the two meetings in February where councilmembers discussed the technologies, only three out of the five members were present, barely making a quorum. Two of those members — Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Lisa Herbold — were present at both meetings.

Committee members did adopt a few of the recommendations made by members of the public, including a requirement that SPD analyze the equity impacts of the surveillance tools, conduct audit logs of the technologies’ usage, and develop a policy that prohibits the use of weapons on remotely operated vehicles.

However, the Council chose not to impose more stringent limitations, such as limiting the use of spatial analysis technologies to the most serious crimes, banning a GeoTime feature that can look up a person’s social media use, and requiring a warrant before a police officer extracts data from a computer or cellphone. 

“The amendments that were added don’t come close to addressing all the recommendations supported by the workgroup or [that] are heavily recommended by the workgroup and members of the public,” Lee said.

The City Council also didn’t ban the use of multiple surveillance technologies in conjunction with one another. For example, with the GeoTime tool, police officers could input data extracted from a variety of sources to help pinpoint a person’s location history. Similarly, cellphone extraction devices — which can be extremely invasive, as Real Change reported last year — can reveal sensitive details about people not related to a suspected crime.

“The data collected by these tools or data analyzed by these tools could be used in tandem with things like predictive policing tools or used in combination with biometric technologies,” Lee said.

Cynthia Spiess, a Seattle-based security researcher, has been attending surveillance ordinance meetings and submitting comments to the IT department for years. However, she said it didn’t seem like the City was making an effort to incorporate community member’s views. 

In a letter to the Council, the City’s chief technology officer (CTO) did not include any of the working group’s recommendations, saying they were addressed by existing SPD policy or the Surveillance Impact Reports (SIRs) that the IT department conducted, Spiess said. Herbold was the only councilmember who raised the issue of the CTO not addressing the recommendations. She was also the only one who proposed any amendments at the two committee meetings.

“That’s problematic that the rest of the committee members are not pulling their weight when it comes to adding oversight on these technologies,” Spiess said.

This lack of interest by the City Council mirrors the lack of critical oversight given to problematic surveillance technologies by the City as a whole. Spiess said this is likely because SPD already uses the technologies, so the City doesn’t have any incentive to restrict or even properly investigate the use of technology it already paid for.

“One of the problems we were facing is that the only materials that the public is hearing about would be from the City itself,” she said. “It would behoove them to keep using the technology they already have, since these are all retroactive technology reviews. So they’re already in use, already been procured — well-heeled things that the various departments are using — and I don’t think the Seattle IT privacy department wants to be abrasive with any of the other departments.”

Lee, Spiess, and other community advocates said ahead of the meeting that they hoped the City Council would postpone making a decision and listen to independent voices on the true privacy risks of the surveillance technologies instead of rushing through the process. 

“I think there should be a good discussion with all the councilmembers hearing our concerns and really doing justice to hearing our voices and heeding those concerns, and I don’t feel like that’s occurred thus far,” Spiess said.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: Community members expressed frustration about the lack of oversight from the City Council on SPD surveillance technologies. The department currently uses a number of tools, such as location tracking and cellphone data extraction. (Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikicommons)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!