Archive for the 'Seattle City Council' Category

Tell City Council that Feds Must Follow Seattle Law

Call for action: Demand transparency related to federal government surveillance in Seattle


Email the city and insist that city employees document cooperation with federal requests for surveillance cameras.


What: Meeting of Seattle City Council Committee on Energy and Environment. Agenda:…

When: Tuesday, January 24, at 2 pm

Where: Council Chambers at Seattle City Hall (601 5th Avenue, at Cherry)

Why: Of interest in the agenda is item #2:

Warrantless Surveillance Cameras in Seattle: How to protect
the privacy of Seattleites and reverse the proliferation of
surveillance cameras installed by the Seattle Police
Department and Federal law enforcement agencies on SCL
polls in public space without democratic authorization or

As many of you will know, Seattle currently has legislation about surveillance equipment on the books. Currently, however, federal agencies ignore it (because it doesn’t apply to them) and use city resources to put up their own cameras. Seattle Privacy has documented several cases where the ATF or FBI entered into informal, off-the-record, verbal agreements Seattle City Light employees allowing the placement of cameras on utility poles.

We support the committee’s study of this issue call on the committee members to back corrective legislation.

What you can do

Attend the meeting if you can, and speak out during the public comment period.

If you can’t attend, you can submit a public comment by emailing the committee members:

For example, you might feel that…

  • Any agreements between federal and city agencies regarding surveillance equipment should be written down and FOIA-able.
  • The public should know who makes the call to allow ATF cameras.
  • The lack of transparency in the city’s dealings with the federal government is at odds with our status as a sanctuary city.

We’ll be at the meeting, and hope to see you there.

ShotSpotter: There’s no lobbyist like an arms lobbyist

Seattle Privacy Coalition has blogged before about the aggressive marketing practices of ShotSpotterTM, the controversial gun-fire detection system that Seattle City Council wants to purchase. Now our friendly competitor news outlet The Intercept has blasted the story sky-high. When a sales pitch in Council Chambers is really a lobbying campaign by an international arms dealer, hold onto your wallet and your freedoms.

Here’s the Intercept article in a nutshell:

  • Despite claims to the contrary, ShotSpotter, which uses a network of microphones to pinpoint gunshots in covered areas, also records conversations going on in the vicinity. This is established fact, inasmuch as the recordings have been admitted as evidence in criminal trials.
  • ShotSpotter’s wide deployment in over 90 US cities is powered by an aggressive lobbying campaign.
    • DC lobbyist Ferguson Group, by targeting congressional delegations, has secured $7 million in federal funds to purchase ShotSpotter through Department of Justice.
    • ShotSpotter also has hired lobbying firms Squire Patton Boggs, Raben Group, Greenberg Traurig, and Mercury Group Public Affairs to sell its products at the federal, state, and city levels, including coordination with police unions.
    • Having laid the federal funding groundwork, ShotSpotter guides potential customers through the grant application process.
    • ShotSpotter cultivates revolving-door relationships with law-enforcement heavies. Senior Vice President David Chipman is a former senior official at the ATF and a former fellow to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton did a stint as a board member before assuming his present position as one of ShotSpotter’s newest and biggest customers. (Fortunately for the American Way, he recused himself from that purchasing decision.)

The article also spotlights the silly claims by company executives that ShotSpotter is not a listening device. As one helpfully explains, “It’s an acoustic sensor. It’s not a microphone,” which you can file under Distinction Without A Difference. And, as usual, ShotSpotter can’t keep its story straight. Our Oakland friend @marymad contributes this capture from the ShotSpotter Web site:

Embedded image permalink

Just like a cell phone, eh? That explains why the 20-30 foot limit is nonsense, too. Cell phone users know that speaker-phone mode picks up anything loud enough to be picked up, regardless of distance. A conversation 100 feet away on a quiet street? No problem.

The Intercept piece concludes with this alarming assessment of the privacy issues presented by ShotSpotter’s audio surveillance:

ShotSpotter’s privacy policy claims this audio is “erased and overwritten” and “lost permanently” if its system does not sense a gunshot. However, even if this is true, the policy also states that ShotSpotter has detected and recorded “3 million incidents” over the past ten years. This also indicates the sensors report a staggering level of false alarms, and that the company has permanently recorded 18 million seconds — in other words, 5,000 hours or approximately seven months — of audio. According to a promotional document emailed to Miami city officials by ShotSpotter’s sales team, the technology allows end users to retain this audio online for two years and offline for another five.

The lessons here are not new:

  • ShotSpotter is a questionable use of money, a technical quick-fix that does little for public safety and nothing for the underlying causers of crime.
  • The company is a snake-oil merchant that constantly makes claims that defy scientific logic.
  • The ShotSpotter lobbying machine is a public menace.


We support the plan by Seattle City Council to closely review the money provisionally allocated to purchase ShotSpotter.

ShotSpotter makes up its gunfire data, but it STILL doesn’t make any sense

SST, Inc.,  the company that sells ShotSpotter gunfire-detection systems to regional governments around the world, recently published a marketing pamphlet called the 2014 National Gunfire Index. The Seattle City Council might avoid purchasing another police boondoggle if it examines the phony data and confused arguments that pad out this piece of fake science.

Seattle Privacy Coalition ran across this document while compiling press clippings on ShotSpotter. Beginning in October, glowing press releases and media reports about the success of ShotSpotter began popping up around the country. For example, in Camden, NJ:

[County Commission] Director Louis Cappelli, Mayor Dana Redd and Chief Scott Thomson announced that ShotSpotter Flex[,] the global leader in gunfire detection and analysis, today announced that its National Gunfire Index revealed that gunfire incidents in Camden City for the first half of 2014 are down by 48.5 percent, compared to first half of 2013, where ShotSpotter was deployed during both periods.[1]

And in Kansas City, MO:

Newly released data from the makers of the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system indicates that gunfire has decreased significantly in Kansas City’s urban core over the last year.



The ShotSpotter system covers 3.55 square miles in Kansas City near the Troost MAX bus line. In comparing the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014, gunfire incidents in those areas fell by 25.9 percent. That’s 55 fewer incidents. That keeps with the trend in 31 other cities across the United States and Caribbean that ShotSpotter serves: those cities averaged 25.9 percent fewer gunfire incidents, as well.[2]

Wow, those are amazing year-over-year crime reduction numbers! And the clear implication is that SpotShotter made this happen.

Let’s have a look at that data

An examination of ShotSpotter’s data and research methodology dispels any hope that it has a basis in legitimate science. There are several separate and false claims to be debunked.

False Claim 1 — Gunfire declined in SpotShotter cities from 2013 to 2014

Bizarrely, this most basic claim, the one politicians and media picked up on, is proved false (or unintelligible)  by  ShotSpotter’s own figures. These are summarized in a graphic[3]:


The researchers analyze their raw data (which consists of detected gunshots) in two ways, as total rounds fired, and as “incidents.” Gunfire “incidents” are never actually defined, nor are we told why this is a useful measure. As the graphic shows, incidents declined sharply in the 31 communities studied, while absolute rounds fired increased, and this 20.6% decline is what the the report touts on 7 of its 9 pages of content. The rounds-fired figure is mentioned on 3 pages.

The facts become murkier when we come to this baffling statement:

Rounds (bullets) fired per gunfire incident were up by 36%. On average, 3.2 rounds were fired per incident during the first half of 2014, up 10% from first half 2013 average of 2.9 rounds per incident.[4]

Now there are three different figures for rounds-fired:

  • 14%
  • 36%
  • 10%

The supporting graphic (Web version[5]) both hides the high number and adds to the confusion with a whole new measure called “Total Number of Rounds Fired Per Incident” (emphasis ours). To see this, you have to mouse-over the bullet images, as shown in the following before-and-after versions:


Added confusion stems from the complete meaninglessness of “total rounds per incident” and how this relates to “average rounds.” 

ShotSpotter does provide some actual raw numbers[6] (more on that below) that supposedly back up its generalizations.

Total Incidents Total Rounds Fired
2013 14,703 42,830
2014 11,675 58,087
Year-over-year change  -20%  +36%

At least that clarifies which of the calculated numbers are real, such as the high “total-rounds-per” number that the report tried to hide and fails to explain, and which turns out to be the real figure for rounds-per-incident. The scale of the problem becomes clear in the following graph — created by Seattle Privacy Coalition, not ShotSpotter — which illustrates the public safety significance of ShotSpotter’s two measures (as we understand them):


This makes it pretty clear that the “incidents” measure is here to obscure the fact that gunfire increased by 36% in the 31 ShotSpotter communities during the the period of the study.  People dodging bullets don’t care how many people are firing at them. Yet these are the statistics that embolden SST President and CEO, Ralph A. Clark, to tell the Camden, NJ, newspaper:

“The gunfire index data is extremely encouraging and suggests what cities and their law enforcement agencies can accomplish with a comprehensive gun violence reduction effort focused on enhanced response and community engagement.”[7]

Or, as the Index itself puts it,

Gunfire incidents are down in almost every ShotSpotter Flex city. In the 31 communities that we were able to analyze both for 1H2013 and 1H2014, gunfire incidents were down in 28 of the 31 communities, or 90% of them.[8]

False Claim 2 — SpotShotter is responsible for reducing gun violence

Things look bad for ShotSpotter. Far from reducing gun violence, Its figures suggest it has aggravated gun violence in the communities where it is deployed. The only thing that saves it from that humiliating finding is the iron rule of statistics: correlation is not causation. ShotSpotter cannot actually be blamed for an increase in gun violence without controlled studies that rule out other factors that may be causing the increase. Furthermore, the sloppiness of the arithmetic and reasoning in the 2014 National Gunfire Index make us wary of actually trusting the figures presented. Without more data, there is no way to know how much damage ShotSpotter is or is not causing.

On the other hand, reliable independent crime statistics tell a story that is unhelpful to ShotSpotter’s case regardless of the soundness of the gunfire report data. The FBI’s uniform crime statistics document[9] a steady decline of all violent crime nationwide over the past 20 years:


This trend suggests that a decline of about 3% in the overall violent crime rate probably occurred between 2013 and 2014. Any claim that ShotSpotter reduces crime would have to take into account this background decline. It is troubling but not surprising that the study ignores this, since it is much more enjoyable to claim credit for whatever good is happening on your watch. Of course, that’s not science.

The most plausible inference to make in the face of the FBI’s figures is that ShotSpotter’s figures, showing a 36% increase in gunfire over the last year, are simply too aberrant to be trusted without confirmation by qualified researchers.

False Claim 3 —  ShotSpotter bases its claims on real-world data

ShotSpotter spends a lot of time in this report stressing its careful comparison of “apples-to-apples” data. Unfortunately, it appears that the researchers only got halfway through that research methods course. Even knowing the shoddiness of the National Gunfire Index‘s methodology and analysis, it comes as a surprise that ShotSpotter actually made up data to fill out gaps in its observed gunfire tracking. The note on methodology at the end of the Index explains how this worked in considerable detail (emphasis ours)[10]


So, in other words, up to 45% of any particular community’s data over a six month period was “imputed” by means of this process of “proration.”

That explains a lot.



[1] “ShotSpotter Index Measures a Large Decrease in Gun Violence.”, October 8, 2014. Accessed 2014/11/-21.

[2] “ShotSpotter Success: Gunfire down by 26 percent in Kansas City areas by ShotSpotter following transit-police partnership.” www.kcata.orgOct 13, 2014. Accessed 2014/11/21.

[3] “2014 National Gunfire Index.” [Web version.]

[4] 2014 National Gunfire Index, p. 7. [PDF, 2014.] Also archived at

[5] “2014 National Gunfire Index.” [Web version.]

[6] 2014 National Gunfire Index, pp. 5, 7. [PDF, 2014.] Also archived at

[7] “ShotSpotter Index Measures a Large Decrease in Gun Violence.”, October 8, 2014. Accessed 2014/11/-21.

[8] 2014 National Gunfire Index, p. 6. [PDF, 2014.] Also archived at

[9] “FBI Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States 2013: Table 1.” Downloadable as a spreadsheet at

[10] 2014 National Gunfire Index, p. 10. [PDF, 2014.] Also archived at

“If not for Seattle, this history would be different”

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour reminds us that courage is local

A few days before the Seattle City Council announced its precedent-setting privacy initiative, the year’s most anticipated documentary, Citizenfour, opened at the Uptown SIFF Cinema.  Laura Poitras’s third film about the post-9/11 American security state tells the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower who made “dragnet surveillance” a household term.

Seattle’s step toward privacy and accountability was well-covered in the local press and also made the leap to a couple of governance trade journals. Seattle Privacy made sure that Laura Poitras herself knew what had happened here at the same time that her film was drawing capacity crowds. She sent us congratulations:

It is fitting that Seattle is first to respond – it is the home of NSA
PRISM partners such as Microsoft, as well a strong community of people
building alternatives to dragnet surveillance. These alternatives, as
well as informing and engaging with the people of Seattle, are a step
toward regaining meaningful democratic oversight relating to security
and privacy in our country.

If not for Seattle, this history would be different.


When the Seattle Privacy Coalition came together in early 2013, the city’s political establishment issued us the tin-foil hats reserved for people who worry about government surveillance. The disgraced, federally supervised Seattle Police Department was so used to getting its way in technology matters that it shrugged off negative public reaction to the “port security” camera network. In talks with city officials, we provoked eye-rolls and knowing smirks by suggesting that the city should pass up federal grant money that paid for boondoggles such as police drones. [Note: See the update at the end of this post. It ain’t over.]

After Snowden, the complacency was gone. Little has changed at the national or state levels — the security agencies still run Congress and the White House, Boeing still dictates to Olympia. But locally, there is movement. DHS-funded spying and cops in tanks have become issues with names: Oakland, Ferguson. The city establishment’s dread of controversy now works in favor of privacy advocates. The security lobby will have a hard time influencing every petty municipality the way it influences the federal government.

An evolving model for political action emerges from Citizenfour. In a world where democracy and the press have ceased to function at the highest levels, we watch lone individuals making fateful choices grounded in their private experience. These precise moments of integrity contrast with farcically mediated global contexts: archival footage of NSA Director Keith Alexander and National Security Director James Clapper telling extravagant lies to Congress; a frantic scrum of boom-bearing reporters around Glenn Greenwald and his partner (and taking care to edit themselves out of the film they will broadcast); or the recurring apparition of Wolf Blitzer playing Wolf Blitzer. Always there is a strong implicit case for what it real and what is not, and where personal agency lies.

“There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.” — Leonard Cohen

Poitras, not Snowden, is the first example of this in Citizenfour. Out of the blue, Snowden sends her an encrypted email message, an event recreated on-screen as white text unspooling in the black void of a Linux computer terminal. Disembodied in this weirdly intimate environment, an as yet anonymous Snowden tells her he is a spy, that he has classified disclosures to make, that there is great danger, and that their joint government adversary can attempt one trillion password cracks per second. Her private decision to accept this mysterious challenge leads to the events of the movie.  When she later asks “Citizenfour” why he had chosen her, He tells her, “You chose yourself.”

Poitras next tells the story of NSA veteran William Binney.  After the end of the Cold War, he developed systems to automate the collection and analysis of telecommunications metadata. Originally, the targets were foreign, but shortly after 9/11, NSA turned Binney’s work into the basis of its new program of blanket domestic surveillance. His internal protests against NSA’s lawless, ineffective, and wasteful policies went nowhere, and he soon left the agency. After being raided at gun-point in 2007 during an FBI leak investigation (in which he was later cleared), Binney gained prominence as one of the most outspoken NSA whistle-blowers prior to Snowden.

The misguided raid on Binney was provoked in part by the revelations of Mark Klein, who is not actually in the movie, though we do see a hearing from one the lawsuits that resulted. Klein was a technician for AT&T who discovered that Room 641a at 611 Folsom Street  in San Francisco was an NSA diversion site for all of AT&T’s Internet and telephone traffic. Appalled by what amounted to a tap on the entire Internet, Klein took his story to the Los Angeles Times, which refused (under government pressure) to print it. He next took it to the New York Times, which also bowed to government pressure for a year before finally publishing it in 2005.

Seattle Privacy’s co-founder Jacob Appelbaum turns up twice in the film, once before and once after his NSA reporting forced him into Berlin exile. In one segment, he presses an Occupy Wall Street audience to consider whether they have been personally under surveillance, and lists ways it could have happened — not just by means of telephones, email, and the Web, but also credit cards, travel passes, etc. He calls them canaries in a coal mine who are experiencing what everybody will experience in the near future. (As Jacob likes to say, “My present is your future,” though he now thinks the future has pretty much arrived for everyone.) The personal experience entails the universal problem, and is the key to fighting it.

We also meet Ladar Levison, the [former] proprietor of the secure email service Lavabit. Its most famous customer: Edward Snowden. Levison built an encrypted mail service that collected no information on its users, and thus had nothing to give law enforcement even when subpoenaed. Unable to identify Snowden’s correspondents in the usual way by seizing metadata, the FBI  told Levison to give up Lavabit’s master SSL encryption keys, which would allow them to uncloak the entire Lavabit customer base secretly in real time. Levison instead shut down his business rather than betray his customers’ privacy. Try to imagine that in a corporatized setting where profit is paramount and ethical concerns are actionable in civil court.

In bare outline, Snowden’s own story is that he gave up his prior life and risked life imprisonment  (or worse) to expose the actions of NSA and its partners. Most will remember his principled if fatalistic rationale from the original June 2013 interview. In Citizenfour, Snowden’s anxiety and regret become palpable. He masters his fear and steps through the hotel room door into what may be the waiting arms of a hostile government. Though Snowden repeatedly downplays his role in leaking the documents — “I’m not the story” — his choice is the story.

At Seattle Privacy, we hope to change how citizens are treated by their local government and by the police. The recent good news notwithstanding, we will continue to push the City Council to follow through on its stated intentions. We don’t want the promised oversight structure to end up a dead letter like Ordinance 124142, another privacy “first” that was passed 18 months ago and never enforced. At stake is a role for Seattle as a national model of awakened democratic government. It took bold individuals to expose the corrupt surveillance state, and it will take a bold community to prove Laura Poitras right: “If not for Seattle, this history would be different.”


Even as I wrote and published this, the City Council threatened to reverted business-as-usual by planning a budget hearing for a ShotSpotter-type system. For information about the city’s past flirtation with outdoor audio surveillance (and some sleazy video of Seattle politics at its worst) see our ShotSpotter fact sheet. Rest assured we will communicate to our leaders what we think of their renewed interest in ShotSpotter.

Seattle Takes the Lead in Nationwide Surveillance vs. Privacy Debate

People all over Seattle, the United States, and the world continue to be shocked by seemingly endless revelations of warrantless surveillance, frustrated by demands that we give up ever more privacy, and outraged at being disenfranchised by the chilling effects of having our every word, association, and move tracked.

This morning, Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council members Mike O’Brien and Bruce Harrell boldly announced a new initiative[1] to begin to address the erosion of privacy in our society. Seattle is the first city in the nation to take such a proactive and farsighted step. The initiative will begin with a systematic review of the potential effects on personal privacy of all city programs and policies.

“This move will save Seattle taxpayers money by limiting spending on ideas like surveillance cameras or drones that later need to be scrapped.” -Adam Shostack

The Seattle privacy initiative comes two years after disclosures about Seattle Police Department’s acquisition of surveillance drones[2] and installation of a public surveillance camera network[3] drew public concern and protest. This debate merged with concerns about spying on political activists, unchecked use of facial-recognition technology, locational surveillance via automated license plate readers, and data sharing with private entities along with state and federal agencies.

The Seattle Privacy Coalition applauds Seattle’s leaders and legislators for their bold move to grapple with the difficult and vexing issue of protecting privacy while embracing technological innovation, and for their commitment to expanding civic involvement and bringing more voices to the table.[4]

“We hope that this effort will serve as a model for other municipal governments, and give heart to grassroots privacy advocates everywhere,” said Jan Bultmann, co-founder of SPC. “This development shows that even if our federal government is too paralyzed and beholden to corporate interests to act, we don’t have to sit back and watch our right to privacy evaporate. We can work with local governments who can still hear and respond to our voices.”

“This move by our city’s leadership is exciting,” said Christopher Sheats, Seattle resident and political activist. “It demonstrates that they’re listening to those whom they represent, and that community input is valued here in Seattle. The proposal to further implant privacy-strengthening processes in our city’s government is a refreshing reminder that civil liberties can be protected regardless of advancements in technology.”

“I am happy to see Seattle recognizing the importance of privacy to our citizens and residents,” said Adam Shostack, Seattle resident and author of Threat Modeling: Designing for Security. This move will save Seattle taxpayers money by limiting spending on ideas like surveillance cameras or drones that later need to be scrapped.”

“Meaningful transparency and accountability requires regular people’s fully informed civic involvement. I’m glad to see that the city of Seattle has heard the call and is committing itself to democratic action. This moment in Seattle is made possible because of the sacrifice and courage of the whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is exactly these kinds of changes all across America that he worked to create,” said Jacob Appelbaum, privacy journalist and co-founder of of Seattle Privacy Coalition.



  • Convene team of representatives from city departments to oversee creation and implementation of the privacy program.
  • Appoint a Privacy Advisory Committee of academic and community leaders to develop privacy principles and advise the government team.


  • Develop privacy guidance documents to insure departmental awareness and compliance.
  • Assess the current state of city compliance with the new policies.
  • Remediate gaps in compliance.
  • Establish an ongoing privacy oversight structure.

Seattle Privacy Coalition is a group of current and former Seattle residents that formed in April 2013 over a shared interest in transparency, accountability, and accuracy about the current state of privacy, security, and related issues. Our first project was to explore, document, and provide oversight relating to the Seattle Police Department’s surveillance camera network. Our mission is to urge and empower the City of Seattle to take advantage of Seattle’s leadership in technology and commitment to civil rights to lead the United States to restore and protect all people’s right to privacy.