Seattle Council updating legislation regulating surveillance technology

Code would revise protocol for purchasing, deploying equipment in city

Seattle Council updating legislation regulating surveillance technology

Seattle Council updating legislation regulating surveillance technology

The Seattle City Council will consider updating its ordinance regulating the purchase and installation of surveillance equipment after spending $150,000 this year to remove a network put in place in 2013.

Seattle Police used a $3.6 million Department of Homeland Security grant to create a wireless mesh network consisting of dozens of cameras and 158 wireless access points in 2013.

Following pushback from the ACLU and Seattle Privacy Coalition, which were concerned about people’s wireless devices being tracked and logged, the police department deactivated the network until council could approve a privacy policy.

That never happened, and the city contracted with Prime Electric earlier this year to remove the network, according to a February report by the Seattle Times.

Seattle Police also quietly acquired social media monitoring tools Geofeedia and Babel Street, which caused a ruckus in 2016, when the ACLU again argued the SPD could use the technology to violate people’s civil liberties. Use of Geofeedia reportedly ended months later.

The Governance, Equity, and Technology Committee will consider approving an amendment to Ordinance 125376 and a revised Chapter 14.18 of municipal code governing acquisition and use of surveillance equipment during its meeting 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, in city hall.

SPD and any other department seeking to purchase and use surveillance technology in Seattle would still need council approval.

There would also still need to be at least one community meeting — the council could require more — with opportunities for public comment and written response.

The chief technology officer would need to provide reports regarding what is determined to be surveillance technology, and the council would have the option of removing items from that list. Each technology would also need a surveillance impact report attached to a department request for equipment, describing its purpose, the type of data it could generate, its capabilities — even beyond its intended use — how often the equipment will be in use and how data will be securely stored and later deleted. There would also need to be protocols in place for destroying improperly collected data, according to the draft ordinance.

A summary of the legislation states the transition in the mayor’s office “resulted in the need to update surveillance deadlines and update the process for implementing the new surveillance code requirements.”

Many of these requirements are consistent with the current ordinance.

Notable changes include allowing a city department to group its requests for surveillance technology instead of having to make just one request per month to council for approval, annual equity assessments and a first annual audit conducted by the city auditor and the inspector general for public safety that would start in 2019, and a requirement that quarterly lists of reviewed technologies be posted online.

An equity impact assessment would need to be provided by the city’s chief technology officer no later than Sept. 15 every year. It would address whether certain communities are disproportionately impacted by surveillance equipment and steps to mitigate such disparities.

The revised Chapter 14.18 also exempts certain equipment from being classified as surveillance technology, including body-worn cameras, cameras in and on police vehicles, traffic cameras, cameras installed on city property “solely for security purposes” and cameras used to monitor employees.

A city department could skirt council approval in deploying surveillance technology in emergency situations that pose “an imminent and serious risk of death or substantial bodily harm,” according to a new section of Chapter 14.18 of municipal code, but would have to remove it when the crisis had passed.

Any surveillance equipment currently being used by city departments prior to adoption of the new Chapter 14.18 would be allowed to be used, as well as any technology in the process being purchased prior to passage of the new legislation.