Other side of the Seattle Police surveillance cameras: Why the ‘wireless mesh’ is on but about to be turned offNovember 14, 2013 at 9:52 am | In Seattle Police surveillance cameras, West Seattle news | 20 Comments
(UPDATED 10:21 am with information on when City Council’s likely to get proposed surveillance policies)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When last we checked in on our area’s seven Seattle Police surveillance-cameras-in-waiting five months ago, which was four months after observant WSB readers helped bring their existence (and that of more than 20 other cameras) to light, they were awaiting a mayor/City Council green light.
Before that, policies had to be drafted and approved, by order of the council.
As we have been told every time we’ve asked since then, they’re not ready yet (but – see the update at story’s end – apparently will be, by early December).
But questions and concerns about the system have just resurfaced – this time, not because of the cameras themselves, but because of the “wireless mesh” wi-fi-type network that they are linked to, and its potential for a different kind of surveillance/tracking. The gear for this is visible next to each of the camera housings, though in some areas of the city, it is installed without a camera. This is what it looks like:
(61st/Alki; WSB photo taken Wednesday)
It’s part of a wi-fi-type communications network called “wireless mesh,” and its existence as part of the SPD setup was no secret. Here’s an SPD-presentation graphic shown here in February:
We reported it multiple times during our coverage of the cameras and the attendant controversy over their reach beyond funding obtained from the federal Department of Homeland Security in what was described last year only as a “port-security grant,” without a mention that it would include cameras to be installed in residential/recreational areas, with views of much more than “the port.” Similarly, the discussion of the “mesh” focused previously on public-safety personnel’s ability to use it without being reliant on public networks, without much sunshine on its capability to track non-public-safety devices.
That was the focus when the “wireless mesh” came up again in a new report by The Stranger (see the story here) which also noted that the “wireless mesh” is active – visible in plain sight, if you happen to check the wi-fi ID’s displayed near the installations. While The Stranger’s story focused on the downtown installations, the wireless-mesh setups are adjacent to the cameras here and active as well, part of what SPD said in February was intended to be a ~160-access-point network citywide (described in this document prepared for last spring’s Council briefing). We checked the visible West Seattle ID’s firsthand on Wednesday morning.
(Map showing West Seattle camera locations, from SPD presentation slide deck)
On Wednesday, we drove to each one of the known locations with our laptop up and running, and looked at the list of wi-fi networks in the area at each one. The SPD installation was marked with its geographical ID, like this:
(The access point showing that label is at the Admiral Way Overlook)
The range for some is apparently fairly far – the eastern ones along Alki also show signals from installations downtown, like this one from the camera near Salty’s (labeled Fairmount/Alki but actually Fairmount/Harbor), which also shows Elliott/Blanchard across the bay:
SPD says the “mesh” is not being used, but because of concerns, and because operational policies have not yet gone to the Council has required, it will be turned off. We talked with SPD’s media-relations unit leader Sgt. Sean Whitcomb about this yesterday afternoon.
He says the “nodes” will be “deactivated … as soon as possible” but it is not something that can be done instantly: “It’s a complex process … the quote we have is for about $5,000 and 20 hours of engineer time and will take about a week to get done. The bid came in late Tuesday, he said, and SPD “is in the process of scheduling.”
Why was it on in the first place? “The port security grant required that the system be installed, and part of that was testing that it was installed correctly.” But it wasn’t shut down. “Now, in recognition that there are some very real concerns about privacy in the city, this additional step is being taken at the direction of Chief Pugel.”
You won’t see bucket trucks up on every pole turning a switch – it’s likely a “back-end software fix” of some kind. Sgt. Whitcomb says they also procured a bid on turning it off by “cut(ting) the power,” but that would have cost $20,000.
How will you know when they’ve turned it off? For one, you won’t see the ID’s. For two, he says they’ll likely announce it via the SPD Twitter feed so they can “take some credit for getting (the deactivation) done.”
As for policies/hearings preceding potential activation of the entire system, “wireless mesh,” surveillance cameras and all – still no timeline but Sgt. Whitcomb thinks it’s likely “soon.” We sent inquiries yesterday to the legislative assistants for City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who leads the Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology Committee; no reply yet.
10:21 AM UPDATE: Just heard from Vinh Tang in Councilmember Harrell’s office:
The next Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology committee is scheduled for Wednesday, 12/04/13, 2 pm. Per Council rules, proposed legislation must be received by the City Clerk’s office by Tuesday noon, 22 days in advance of the committee date. As of 11/14, the committee has not received legislation from the executive. The committee will post the proposed legislation online for public review as soon as we receive it. The opportunity would be provided to SPD to present and discuss the proposed legislation and for the public to comment on the matter at the next committee meeting on 12/04, but no vote will be taken. The committee will conduct a thorough examination of the legislation and will listen to feedback from the public before any committee vote. No date has been determined yet for a committee vote but it will most likely take place in early 2014 after a thorough and transparent public process.
(Our coverage of the SPD surveillance cameras/wireless-mesh network is all archived here, newest to oldest)
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