Archive for August, 2015

Fed Fun with No Expectation of Privacy

After Seattle Privacy member Lee Colleton discovered new surveillance cameras popping up in the CD, investigations by us and the press determined that they belong to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Apparently Seattle City Light now sets city privacy policy, since they allowed the cameras on their poles, and they “support law enforcement and will continue to allow that kind of placement in the future” (The Stranger), and nobody else in city government admits any knowledge of this.

But that’s OK, according to the ATF.

[ATF Special Agent Brian] Bennett said the ATF did not have to obtain federal warrants for the cameras since they were placed in public places where people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. (The Seattle Times)

Ah ha! No expectation of privacy, just like the secretive offices of the FBI and ATF in our public Seattle spaces.

So I went for a walk by the Abraham Lincoln Building, home of the FBI in Seattle (1110 3rd Ave) and the Jackson Federal Building, home of the ATF in Seattle (915 2nd Ave.). I carried with me a big ugly camera that doesn’t work very well, some cash, and no ID or cell phone.

Here is the Abraham Lincoln Building:

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Though it nowhere says the FBI is hunkered down inside, the cameras around the perimeter indicate that something is up:

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Right after I took the picture of the garage door, it opened and a car came out. I got bad bad shots of it, one with the license plate readable:

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The G-man-looking driver was extremely unhappy to see me photographing him. He sped up and I failed to capture the sad look on his face. Since the door was still open, I took some pictures looking inside the garage, catching a bonus license plate:

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At this point, a uniformed guy came running out of the garage shouting at me. It was was Christopher Jones, a Paragon Security employee with a gun and badge #1336.

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Mr. Jones asked me what I was doing and who I was and said I couldn’t be there (on the sidewalk) taking pictures. I told him I didn’t care to answer any of his questions, and I was perfectly free to take pictures. Then he told me to stay where I was (which I took to mean, apparently correctly, that I could continue wandering around within a few feet of the garage door taking more pictures).  He asserted that I was not allowed to photograph the interior of the garage and that he could seize my camera if he wished. I said I doubted this. He radioed for a “federal officer,” as he put it, and predicted I would be explaining my actions to a “federal judge.”  Over the radio he described me as being “between suspicious and hostile.” I asked if I was being detained, he said yes, and so we waited. We did a little dance as I tried to photograph his badge and he kept turning away. I finally asked, “Would you please let me get your badge number?” but we kept doing the orbital dance until I got it.

Next, the “federal officer” showed up. It was Inspector Robert Cantu of the Federal Protective Service (DHS), who proved to be calm, polite, and personable. He was also well-informed. He acknowledged that I had the right to photograph the building and the personnel, though he cited a federal statute that he said prohibited photography of certain security equipment such as the metal detector in the lobby. He did not push the issue of whether the statute applied to the garage, and he didn’t try to get me to identify myself. We actually had quite an pleasant conversation. His commanding officer later showed up and was also cordial. I told them I would consult the statute and I thanked Mr. Cantu for being an exemplary representative of the federal government. I also eyed his Taser with particular interest, since it was mounted on his utility vest rather than at his hip.

I then walked two blocks to the federal building:

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I’ve photographed this building a number of times, so I basically just loitered around the east plaza. I noticed a security guard looking at me, so I brought the camera up and tried to take a picture, but the machinery failed me. (I’m about to send the wretched thing off for repairs, but today I wanted something more aggressive than a cell phone.) The guy in uniform — another Paragon Security employee — came trotting over at that point and demanded to see my identification. I refused to provide it. He dropped that tack and asserted that I wasn’t allowed to take his picture, that he was empowered to seize the camera and erase the pictures, and I couldn’t photograph a federal facility. I asserted that I could take his picture any time I like, and the building’s picture, and I asked whether I wasn’t standing that moment on a public sidewalk, which he admitted in some confusion. A passerby walked up then and said that I was absolutely right in everything I’d said, and that he worked nearby in a law office. Encouraged by this, I raised the camera (now working) and took a picture of the guard, who had begun pacing back and forth in consternation. I told him he needed to consult his superior about the legal claims he had made, and probably undergo additional training (which was presumptuous of me, I admit). I asked whether I was being detained or was free to go, and receiving his blessing, I went.

This is the guard, who remains unidentified because the picture is so blurry:

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My encounters today lead me to the following observations and questions:

  • The aggressive behavior of the two Paragon Security employees was apparently meant to be intimidating, and was backed up by specious claims about the law.
  • The demeanor of both DHS officers was professional, polite, and backed up by what struck me as mostly factual statements.
  • This very limited evidence suggests a couple of interesting possibilities. DHS could be engaging in the proverbial good-cop/bad-cop behavior, or the Paragon employees could be poorly trained, or, combining both, DHS could be happy to have its none-too-bright bulldogs keeping the public at bay while they hold in reserve the more elite personnel to deal with citizens who are too well informed to be easily intimidated. This last possibility would be a rather cynical deployment of class against class that serves to mollify well-educated citizens with the chummy camaraderie and deference due the masters (mainly the white middle class) for whom all police agencies actually work.

This last possibility makes me wonder about the real effectiveness of guerrilla police photography. Are we doing nothing more than (as Tom Wolfe wrote) “mau-mauing the flack-catchers”? That might be a useful tactic or it might not, but I can’t believe that the certifiable dummies that we succeed in provoking are the most effective demographic to target.

POSTSCRIPT: As I was proceeded away from the FBI office, I noticed one obvious plainclothes fed after another walking along 3rd Ave. They must have all phoned each other last night and decided to dress their muscular, indeed hypertrophied torsos (tending perilously to fat) in tight pastel dress shirts with sedate ties, to wear sunglasses, to keep their hair crew-cut, and to tend carefully their bushy mustaches. Maybe those guys would be fun to take pictures of, yielding endless sad, sad mug shots. I would need help from someone who knows how to spot the female feds, who must also be out there, expecting privacy as they walk the public streets.