A healthy crowd of Alki residents packed today's City Council Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology committee meeting to voice their concerns about 30 surveillance cameras recently erected along Seattle's waterways—most notably, Alki beach. The cameras, which were purchased through a $5 million federal homeland security grant last year and installed in January, would ostensibly be used to monitor nearby port facilities and guard our waterways against acts of terrorism.

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But the ACLU of Washington likened the cameras to citywide network ushering in 24-hour government surveillance, while Alki residents fear that their 360-degree capabilities could be easily manipulated to zoom into resident windows or used to spy on unsuspecting, law-abiding beachgoers. (Only one testified seemed to support the cameras, stating that she was amazed we hadn't been attacked by terrorists already.)

"The camera at corner of California Ave and Alki has a 360 view, [it can monitor] everyone coming up and going down the hill," one person testified. "If they were only meant for port security, they’d only be facing the port."

"What bothers the community is that this was never brought to our attention, never discussed," testified another Alki resident. "We’re concerned about living in a policed state. These cameras can potentially look right into our houses—right into my living room."

"Is there no tinge of embarrassment that the cameras are right across from the volleyball courts where high-quality athletic women play volleyball?" asked a third, dubbing the cameras "bikini cams." "One of these women might have bomb in her bikini top, I guess."

Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer made a valiant effort to convince concerned Alki residents and leery council members that the cameras, which won't be activated until March 31st at the earliest, won't be used to spy on private homes and innocent, bikini-clad beachgoers. "We have no interest or intention of violating anybody’s privacy," he said.

But, "What if someone who was immoral had access to this?" asked Council member Mike O'Brien.

A tech worker with the city explained that while the cameras can be manually controlled, what they record can be digitally masked—i.e. censored with big, black boxes—to meet the privacy needs of residents. That masking is done in the camera, while the data it records can only be viewed through a DVR, which means that no one can manipulate the masking or remove it after the fact. (Audio surveillance isn't a concern as the cameras aren't equipped with audio.)

What digital masking looks like.
  • The blacked out sections above have been privatized.

More after the jump.

"[The video log] would be available to police, the fire department, SDOT, and maybe the coast guard," explained Mark Schmidt, from the city's Department of Information Technology. "If someone wants to use the camera, they'd have to be authorized and log into the recording system." From that point, everything they did would be tracked: The date, time, which cameras they viewed, and for how long.

"The folks that want to do us harm have the upper hand provided we do not stay vigilant," Kimerer said. Seattle needs the "technology capability to deter and protect our waterways from acts of terrorism."

A sense of inevitability—that 24-hour public surveillance is the way of the future—permeated the meeting. As with the city's recent drone conversation, committee chair Bruce Harrell noted that, "I’d have liked to have this conversation back when the camera grant was approved," not after they've been installed.

In addition to the Alki cameras, three cameras have been erected along the Ballard bridge and Fremont bridge, and 10 others (out of a scheduled 12) have been raised in West Seattle. As yet, none of these cameras are operational. There are also (as yet) no guidelines in place for what to mask on the cameras, how long recorded information would be retained, and how far an audit log would be kept to track which department officials were accessing what information. (City officials discussed keeping recordings for 30 days and audit logs for 90 days.)

As the meeting made clear, this conversation is far from over. "I'm still not fully convinced that the masking technology gets us where we need to be," Harrell said. "The police department and everyone else is keenly aware of the public’s sensitivity to surveillance. People don’t like cameras on them when they have the expectation of privacy."

Now, council members are rushing to push through legislation to preserve that privacy and the host of concerns raised by the ACLU and residents. Council member Nick Licata is drafting legislation that would require departments to first obtain council approval before acquiring surveillance equipment in the future. The measure would also require departments to develop council-approved protocols on surveillance camera video retention, storage, and who could access the data that cameras capture.