FBI Cameras in Seattle Need to Be Regulated by the Public — Not Secretly Imposed on the Public

This piece originally appeared at The Seattle Times

While you’re strolling the Seattle streets this summer, take a moment to look up. Thanks to the FBI, there’s a new bird in town atop the maples and the power lines: surveillance cameras housed in birdhouse-like “concealments” attached to the city’s utility poles.

The new species was first spotted in the wild last July, and a state public-records request by KIRO 7 yielded limited information from Seattle City Light in November. But most Seattleites likely weren’t aware of their presence in the city until recently, when the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city and Seattle City Light to prevent the release of additional information about the cameras, including their locations. A federal judge promptly blocked the release of the location information, at least for now.

Whether that decision is correct as a legal matter is complicated. The government claims, “Every FBI pole camera is associated with a particular subject or particular investigation,” and that revealing a camera’s location would have a “devastating impact” on ongoing police work.

At least in particular cases, that claim may be true, and where it is the government would likely have the right to keep the cameras’ locations secret. Moreover, some cameras may be so specifically located that disclosing their locations would invade individuals’ privacy by broadcasting to their neighbors and the world that they are under suspicion, even before they have been charged with any wrongdoing.

But even if the specific locations of the FBI’s pole cameras should remain protected, the public is plainly entitled to know far more about the FBI’s use of them, both in general and in particular cases that are no longer sensitive. In its lawsuit, the government is emphasizing that the installation of the pole cameras takes place under FBI guidelines. But those guidelines indicate that the FBI will get a warrant to install surveillance cameras when installation “involve[s] physical trespass” — something the placement of the pole cameras clearly does.

And even if the government is correct that its guidelines authorize the FBI’s conduct, it only exposes how brazen its actions are: According to the government, none of the installation must take place under the supervision of any court, and none of it must take place with the permission or even knowledge of the city or any of its residents. (The FBI says it shared limited information about pole-camera installation with the city starting in 2013, but has ceased doing so in response to the city’s public-records release last fall.)

Those positions are the result of the government’s extremely narrow interpretation of the rights protected by the Fourth Amendment. The government believes that because utility poles are in public spaces, no one within their gaze has a constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy — even if the cameras stay put for weeks or months at a time. In a recent case in Ohio, a federal appeals court agreed, holding that 10 weeks of video surveillance from a pole camera did not amount to a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union strongly disagrees with that reasoning: To engage in long-term, covert surveillance, police need to get a warrant. The stakes of this debate are high. If the government is correct, there would be no legal obstacle to the government installing a total video surveillance system anywhere it likes — even without specific legislative authorization or any judicial oversight whatsoever.

From what we know, Seattle is not there yet — the public information lists about nine cameras installed by the FBI (and 20 installed by other law-enforcement agencies) between 2011 and 2015. But now is the time for the FBI to come clean about its use of these cameras and to reform that use to bring it into line with the Constitution and under the supervision of the courts. Simply put, if the government is going to install video-surveillance cameras on Seattle’s (or any other city’s) streets, it should not be permitted to do so on its own and under a veil of perpetual secrecy.

In a promising but limited first step, the DOJ recently changed its policy on the use of “stingray” devices that collect location information from cellphones, agreeing to seek warrants before deploying them. It should make the same commitment when it comes to pole cameras.

That is not just because the Constitution requires it, but because Americans demand it. Far too often, from the National Security Agency surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden to the use of “stingrays” by small-town police departments, citizens learn about the proliferation of surveillance technologies without ever having the chance to openly debate or discuss them. Recall the outcry that arose when Seattle police acquired drones and when a camera network appeared on Alki — without any public input.

Thankfully, that is starting to change. Earlier this month, Santa Clara County in California passed a landmark law requiring public transparency, accountability, and oversight whenever the county seeks to introduce new surveillance technologies. Proudly, Seattle was an early adopter of this approach. Three years ago, the Seattle City Council passed a surveillance ordinance requiring city departments to obtain council approval before installing or using surveillance equipment and to provide detailed protocols for its operation and its handling of the data collected.

The council should be applauded for passage of that ordinance. But the emergence of the FBI’s pole cams in the city demonstrates the need to strengthen it. The ordinance should apply not only to city departments installing surveillance equipment themselves, but also to departments cooperating with, or acquiescing to, surveillance by outside entities, such as the FBI. Existing loopholes in the ordinance for law-enforcement surveillance need to be narrowed so that entire programs of surveillance require public approval, even if individual instances pursuant to a warrant are exempt from public scrutiny.

Most important, this approach needs to go beyond Seattle. All jurisdictions, from the smallest town to the entire state and country, should adopt similar rules.

The principle is clear: Surveillance should be a tool of the public and regulated by the public — not secretly imposed on the public.

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Anonymous

Except for restroom areas, we should put cameras and audio in every room of the U.S. Supreme Court building and every room of Congress. If they are doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear!

Anonymous

Realize that the FBI may be using these to protect citizens from abuse by Law Enforcement / police officers. They also could be completely fake. Nevertheless, they really need a warrant to do this stuff. When the FBI is involved, usually it may involve major crimes like terrorism, but could also involve government fraud. I would be upset if I lived in the area. Never sure on the FBI. Sometimes, it is for major crimes, and sometimes they are investigating the police.

A bunch of these went up in the City of Appleton, WI. The city owns them and was using them to harass citizens and pedestrians walking down a public sidewalk at night. After complaining, my solution was just to leave the city and avoid traveling or doing business there. And so far, the number of vacant commercial buildings in range of those cameras has increased dramatically. I made a documentary on government fraud and stalking by the City of Appleton and the cops...i'm a white guy with no criminal record, in fact, no records at all. I documented a pattern of harassment that increases as my facial hair grows. When I shave, the harassment decreases, when I have a beard and facial hair, I documented more harassment. My hair is long and naturally curly, but not perfectly cut, it is sort of bushy.

The activities, which I documented using my own security cameras, as well as a number of handheld HD camcorders, shows basically that I was being stalked. Some of the activity involves what look like attempts for law enforcement to sell drugs or soliciting activities. I would estimate that more that 60 percent or more of the police calls in Appleton, WI are bogus.

The police department is also excepting anonymous police reports. Wanna target and harass a person you don't like? Wanna target a particular race? Just except anonymous police reports. That looks suspicious.

Anonymous # 2 ...

Not so anonymous now. I agree that the answer is to install community controled cameras in the offices of the govt. for the sake of transparency; and find it hard to believe any politician would complain about this opportunity to "reach out" to more constituents; and tell them what they've been doing.. " .
Somebody with some legal balls - write up a rediculous ballot measure and float it out in the states where signatures can force a ballot measure and you'll have a law that allows ACLU to put cameras anywhere they want. Make it absurd even... newsworthy absurd - and watch the politicians and enforcers create such a stink over it; that it gains the critical mass needed to be approved. Fight fire with fire.. but make it "not like them"; make it "space balls -abusurd" if necessary..a mockery.. a public social experiment in the non-govt industry of HUMOR - just do SOMETHING besides NOTHING. sumpin;;sumpin..

Anonymous

The FBI couldn't prevent a significant crime if someone called up their phone number and reported it directly, or if someone wrote about crime being committed and waved it in front of their eyes.

It's highly likely that the location of these cameras are already known outside whatever crummy, misinformed FBI investigations are being conducted. I am so sick of reading about construction that I wish they'd just get into architecture already.

Anonymous

Did anyone notice once again . Something that should of been stopped wasn't . Mass Surveillance huh ?

Dan

Big Brother is here. We have to stop this activity!

Anonymous

Dear ACLU--- Dallas is on you!

Anonymous

I wish I could comment but the 2 comments already here excellantly covers just about everything that could be said.
Unless somebody is stupid enough to support the double standards of government and law enforcement which is "Do as we say, not as we do"

From Texas

Not sure why everyone is suprised these cameras and other surveillance systems are in use around the country. Without specific laws with specific language aimed at these devices being enacted they will be used. Power over others is an addictive drug. "Law enforcement" is tasked with exerting authority enacted by one group on another group.

How many of you have read even one document released by Snowden? You would be surprised it's mostly boring, but there are the few documents that lay out the Federal plan to track every human being. Sound weird, probably but they will come with stories like "....its for everyone's safety...", "...for the children...", "...helping the poor...". All good things.

Beware the shaman that promises anything

Anonymous

FBI employees in city across the nation, did tell of people learning to fly without concern as how to land. Thomas Drake did blow the whistle about NSA spending for new programs,when good programs already existed. he went Bankrupt in his defense case,facing 35 years in prison. He was acquitted and pledge guilty to one count. Dick Chaney Knew in 96 that a war with Iraq was a( would be) quagmire . I don't think the patriot act is fair,nor do I think cell phone data collection is warranted.

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