January 23rd, 2017 by David Robinson
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: https://seattle.legistar.com/View.ashx…
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.
March 29th, 2015 by David Robinson
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:
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:
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.
November 14th, 2014 by David Robinson
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.
March 10th, 2014 by Jan Bultmann
by Phil Mocek, Jacob Appelbaum, Jan Bultmann, Allegra Searle-LeBel, and Lee Colleton
We call on City Council to make the following improvements to Ordinance 124142, also known as “the operating surveillance equipment” ordinance, before the end of calendar year 2014.
- Ordinance 124142 should be amended to regulate all government agencies operating in Seattle, not merely departments in the city of Seattle.
- Ordinance 124142 should be amended to tighten or entirely remove the exigent circumstances loophole. There are rarely if ever exigent circumstances involved in the purchase of a large-scale strategic surveillance system. If such exigent circumstances do arise, all such exigent circumstances, equipment purchases, budgets, ongoing relationships, training, and outcomes should be reviewed by City Council.
- Instead of excluding certain existing data-gathering equipment, Ordinance 124142 should specifically ensure that digital in-car video systems (“dash cams”), automated license plate reader (ALPR) systems, “port security” cameras, and other such data-gathering systems will be reviewed. The ALPR system is the most important of these to receive review, as the use of it amounts to wide-area surveillance of everyone–not simply those people who are suspected of having committed crimes. Systems that gather data on behalf of SDOT, SCL, and SPU should also be covered by the ordinance.
- All protocols for use of surveillance equipment must be public.
- Any and all aspects–even secret ones–of surveillance performed by or commissioned by government agencies in Seattle must include automatic sunset provisions.
- All property used for communications interception wire rooms or other surveillance (e.g., rentals of houses, vans, etc.) must be accounted for in a budget. When properties are no longer used for such purpose, their addresses must be disclosed. Similarly, the surveillance-related purpose of other expenses must be disclosed after the necessarily-secret nature of their use concludes.
- The ongoing budget and expenses for surveillance activity funded by City of Seattle must be public during this entire time so that we, the people, can review these expenses and recognize if such activity has spiraled out of control relative to other city priorities. The public must have the ability to determine if a general area has been under surveillance.
Logging and Sharing
- All non-SPD contact (eg: FBI, TSA, ICE, SS, any part of DHS, etc) that request assistance, clearance, or notification of surveillance should be logged. Thus, if the FBI is performing a raid of say, your house, the local police don’t accidentally think it is a (different kind of) crime in progress. This already happens, the key is that the log should be audited and not just a matter of coordination.A requirement that any surveillance operations within Seattle must be logged with the Seattle police – thus, the FBI would be required to notify the SPD, even if only for their spying activity.
- All legal statutes must be cited *during* collection as to why the collection was undertaken in the first place.
- All electronic surveillance must be logged, including location, equipment type, legal justification and information on the officer(s) involved.
- All surveillance requests involving any non-SPD agency, company or private individual must be logged. For example, if SPD asks Google for data on Yoga Arts, that request must be logged.
- The ordinance should specify that all surveillance data or metadata is only for use with the SPD and is not for data sharing with WSIN, the State of Washington, any Federal agency or any other agency, company, or person without a specific court order.
- A log of all contact made with those under surveillance – that is – each time a person is under surveillance and the collection ends, the person should be notified and it should be logged. A lack of notification should also be logged. This information should become public record automatically and absolutely handed over during a Privacy Act Request (PAR) by the target of surveillance.
- If there was a sneak-and-peak warrantless search (eg: PATRIOT Act, Section 215) or a search conducted with a sealed warrant, this must be logged specifically as such. It should be logged with a third party that is not the SPD. We’re open to suggestions as to which party is a good one. It seems that the Mayor’s office is probably a reasonable first choice.
- If during the course of a surveillance operation, a person is in harm’s way and disclosure *could* expose the surveillance operation, the surveillance team has a *duty* to put public safety before secrecy of the specific operation. This is already the case with good Samaritan laws in most states – when we see a person in trouble, we are required by law to help. For better or worse, it should apply to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, even if it would otherwise harm the secrecy of the operation.
- Ordinance 124142 must be enforced, and penalties for violation must be specified.
February 10th, 2014 by Jan Bultmann
Today we are proud to join thousands of websites around the world in demanding an end to mass surveillance through an Internet-wide digital protest.
Here are two ways to take action right now, one on the federal level and one for the City of Seattle.
1. On the federal level: Tweet to our own Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell asking her to co-sponsor the USA Freedom Act.
Senator Cantwell has a strong record in this area, but a lot of defense dollars pour into this state. She needs cover from her constituents when she goes up against military programs. And quoting Thomas Drake: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Senator Cantwell’s official twitter address is @CantwellPress.
Here are a few sample tweets we’ll be sending to Senator Cantwell. Please copy and paste at will, mix and match, or create your own:
- Bulk domestic surveillance is unconstitutional and violates our Fourth Amendment rights. Please co-sponsor USA Freedom Act.
- NSA spying costs $53 billion in 2013 & there’s no evidence it’s effective. Please co-sponsor USA Freedom Act.
- Cost of NSA spying revelations to American business could reach $180 billion by 2016. Please co-sponsor USA Freedom Act.
- Oppose the bad bill FISA Improvements Act that grants new powers to the NSA. Please co-sponsor USA Freedom Act.
It might also be interesting to quote President Obama, in his January 17 NSA speech, perhaps over a series of tweets:
“But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher. Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power. It depends on the law to constrain those in power.”
2.) On the city level. Send tweets to members of the Seattle Public Safety committee asking them to live up to their oversight responsibilities with regard to Council Bill Number 117996. In last week’s meeting, Councilmember Harrell noted that he didn’t know why his staff had asked him to hold the bill for an extra week of discussion.
We need to make sure he knows.
Here are the twitter addresses for the members of the Seattle Public Safety committee:
@bruceharrell: Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Chair
@NickJLicata: Councilmember Nick Licata, Vice Chair
@sallybagshaw: Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, member
@CouncilmanTim: Councilmember Tim Burgess, alternate
Here are some sample tweets.
- After Snowden, please don’t rubberstamp federal $$$ for surveillance equipment. No on #CB117996
- Please vote no on #CB117996. No $$ from DHS for fusion center; surveillance.
- In addition to NSA surveillance, DHS Is creating a domestic surveillance agency through funding a network of fusion centers.
- No on #CB117996. Sometimes federal training of local police includes how to falsify chains of evidence. http://t.co/WQij30frEC
- DHS grants “militarizing the police all over America” https://medium.com/quinn-norton/b9253a123859 …
In addition, here are some questions and issues we have with CB 117996. If you can figure out how to fit these into tweets to the above elected officials, please do! We’ll be working on it too.
The bill funds the whole project of tightening DHS connection with local law enforcement agencies, NOT just the new Booking Photo Comparison System, which is what was discussed at committee and was covered in a recent Crosscut article. Committee members should be discussing ALL aspects of the funding, not just the new addition. For example, we vigorously oppose continued funding of the Washington State Fusion Center.
Next, we have a number of questions about the SPD “policy” presented at the committee meeting:
- How is a “suspect” defined? What’s to limit what photos will be dumped into the database? Mention was made of a WA DOL facial recognition database — does that mean images from drivers licenses?
- What’s to prevent usage creep over time? The policy could be changed at anytime without notice to Seattle City Council or the public.
- Why are the photos used taken from all bookings, rather than from bookings that resulted in convictions? For example, if police conduct mass arrests at protests or demonstrations, do those booking photos become part of a potential pool of false matches to be “further investigated”?
Given the lack of oversight and potential for future change in policy and future misuse of the system (despite the best intentions of the current proponents at SPD), the system could become part of a broader surveillance system in the future. in light of the Snowden revelations about the multiple illegal and unconstitutional domestic surveillance problems deployed against the American people by the NSA, City Council must not rubber-stamp this legislation as if it were the same old thing. Legislation has been introduced in our own state legislature to deny NSA use of state of Washington resources, but the Seattle City Council doesn’t seem to have heard of this issue or understand that it is relevant to local policing in any way. Council should vote down this bill.
Today, at Seattle Privacy, we call for action in memory of Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013.
Too many of America’s best and brightest are in fear, in exile, in jail, or dead because of their belief in the inalienable rights of individuals that this country was founded to defend.
We miss you, Aaron.