Public Safety & Justice

Seattle's Big Brother Problem

November 18, 2013

By Christine Clarridge and Jennifer Sullivan

Seattle police will deactivate its new wireless information network before the system has actually been put to use.

This is the third time in two years that the Seattle Police Department has had to back off from employing technology purchased with federal funds after concerns were raised over possible surveillance misuse.

The system, which has been turned on and is in test mode, will be shut off by the end of next week and will remain so until the City Council approves a formal policy on how the system will be used, said Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

Whitcomb said the white boxes that make up the communication system will stay attached to utility poles, but the Wi-Fi element of the network will be disabled.

The decision to turn off the Wi-Fi followed sharp criticism from privacy groups and citizens about whether the wireless mesh network could track and pinpoint laptops and cellphones.

MORE: Stories in public safety

Representatives of California-based Aruba Networks, which manufactured the Seattle system, insists the fears are completely ungrounded.

"This specific system is not capable of tracking location," said an Aruba spokesman. "It's not even capable to report the information that would be required for that."

Aruba officials said the company is developing another line of secure Wi-Fi products, in response to the needs of retailers and similar businesses, that will have location-pinpointing capabilities.

Police said the wireless mesh was sought as a way to give the city its own seamless, wireless network that would allow first responders access to communications and information independent of cellphone towers, according to police. Police and fire officials said the network could also be used to send real-time information about a patient's status from ambulances to hospitals.

"Imagine a catastrophe or an outage where there is no cellular network. We could communicate wirelessly," Whitcomb said, adding that the mesh network boxes will "allow government agencies across multiple disciplines to communicate with each other via this backup network."

But the ACLU has criticized the city for purchasing and employing technology, as well as an array of waterfront security cameras and unmanned aerial drones, without first holding public hearings and drafting policies on how to govern the devices.

"They keep putting the cart before the horse," said ACLU director Jennifer Shaw amid the debate earlier this year over the waterfront cameras.

The cameras were intended to provide a sweeping view of the Port facilities, Elliott Bay and the shoreline, according to police.

But the cameras were ordered to be turned off after residents woke up to see some of the cameras mounted on utility poles and facing away from the water.

The drones, which each cost $41,000, were grounded last year after citizens learned the department had received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin operating the unmanned aircraft.

In the face of public outrage over the drones, Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the aircraft returned to the manufacturer before they were put to use by the department.

Jamela Debelak, ACLU of Washington's technology and liberty director, said in a statement Wednesday that the ACLU is happy with Pugel's decision to deactivate the wireless mesh network and believes "the government should not be tracking people's movements."

"There should always be public review and debate before technologies that can be used for surveillance are installed," Debelak wrote. "SPD's action will help ensure that privacy concerns are discussed and addressed."

Whitcomb, the police spokesman, said the department has specifically followed the strict orders of the City Council, which allowed police to place the wireless mesh network throughout downtown, but not use it.

The council directed the department to "not doing anything with surveillance without our expressed consent and approval," Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said the department has tested the system, but insists it has "not used it for law-enforcement purposes."

He said the department has drafted a proposed policy for use of the mesh network and turned it over to the Seattle City Attorney's Office. Once it is approved, police will present it to the City Council, Whitcomb said.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Public Safety & Justice