Even USA Today, the go-to news source for people flying coach and staying in modest hotels—in other words, not what you'd normally consider a daring and radical news source that would go out on a limb—is getting interested in how local police departments engage in cell phone surveillance. See today's story "Cellphone Data Spying: It's Not Just the NSA."
Also: Last month, after this story about the Seattle Police Department's new wireless mesh network (purchased with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security) came out, the SPD announced it would disable the network until there had been "an opportunity for vigorous public debate."
Presumably, that debate would include information about what the network can and cannot do (can it, for example, log the locations of cell phones in real time and log that information indefinitely without asking a judge for a warrant?) and how it should and should not be used by local or federal law enforcement.
Today, an SPD spokesperson said the department had turned off the final nodes in the network on Friday—156 could be disabled remotely, which happened weeks ago (though 19 had to be double-checked in person), but 8 had to be deactivated manually by a technician. Those are now off.
Today, I also received a copy of a letter sent from SPD Chief Jim Pugel to city councilperson Bruce Harrell about the mesh network. The full text is below the jump, but the relevant points are: (a) the department says the technology needs "more vetting with the ACLU and other stakeholders before a public hearing" and (b) Chief Pugel's assertion that the network does not have the capability to track or record a person's movements, but that SPD's draft policies about its use "will cover any non-video technology" anyway.
The department, Pugel says, should be ready for a briefing with the council member earlier next year.
November 25, 2013
The Honorable Bruce Harrell
Chair, Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology Committee
600 4th Avenue, Floor 2
Seattle, WA 98124-4986
Dear Councilmember Harrell,
Earlier this year, the Department notified you that it has been working with the ACLU, City Council, and the Mayor's Office to prepare protocols for the use of the Wireless Mesh cameras. The protocols address how the cameras will be positioned, when and how the cameras can be remotely operated (pan and tilt), who has access to stored video, and when and how that video can be used.
To formalize these protocols, we had expected to submit legislation to the City Council before it began its annual budget deliberations. Unfortunately, we did not make the cut off and had to put the policies on hold. We have recently been working with your staff to schedule a hearing for the policies at your December 4th Public Safety, Civil Rights & Transportation Committee. It now appears that we will not be able to make this hearing and will once again have to put the policies on hold. We feel that the policies need more vetting with the ACLU and other stakeholders before a public hearing. It is our goal to make sure that the policies reflect the values of our community while also safeguarding the public against significant criminal or homeland security threats. This is not a process that we want to rush.
In the meantime, both the wireless component as well as the cameras will remain deactivated. This is consistent with the policy outlined in our letter of 5-24 where we indicate that SPD will discontinue all activities that can be considered surveillance under Ordinance 124142.
You should also know that the policies will cover any non-video technology that the Wireless Mesh Network might use to record or track a person’s movement. This includes GPS, cell phone locator data, license plate readers etc. While the Wireless Mesh Network does not currently have such capabilities, our policies will say that the Police Department will not add these functionalities without first receiving approval from the City Council.
We have had briefings with Councilmembers Licata and O’Brien and would welcome a briefing with you and your staff. I expect that we will be ready for such a briefing early next year. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact me or my staff with questions. Thank you.
Chief of Police