Other side of the Seattle Police surveillance cameras: Why the ‘wireless mesh’ is on but about to be turned off

November 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.

This map featured in WSB coverage back in February shows the local locations (there’s been one update to the map, as reported here in May – no installation at Alki Point):

(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)

20 Comments

  1. Whatever happens with this system long term, if it’s re-activated, the following should be mandatory:
    .
    #1: All the SSID names should clearly identify the owner: “Seattle Police Admiral&Olga”, for example.
    .
    #2: Full publication of all usage policies and internal rules for their use.
    .
    #3: City Council should pass a simple, restrictive law — it should come from them, not the Mayor as a policy — that SPD can only use it’s tracking purposes with a judicial order or warrant. Mandate some oversight as well.
    .
    #4: There needs to be public hearings on the usage policies and system, in whatever form it may be used.
    .
    #5: Investigation of whether these systems can be used to establish a free public Wifi network. There is no logical reason they probably could not be.

    Comment by Joe Szilagyi — 10:51 am November 14, 2013 #

  2. This hole network system should be removed as the SPD and city have not told the truth since the start of this project and changed their stories many times as to intended purpose. Showing me that their not trustworthy with this type of network system. Just more bad dissensions and fraudulent spending of millions of dollars that could have been better spent by the SPD and city. I have to laugh about the 20k to shut the power down statement. Be a great job to get as one person could terminate power and take hardware down in a couple weeks, unless there is a lot more out there we don’t know about.

    Comment by wetone — 11:07 am November 14, 2013 #

  3. The fact that they turned on the network to test out the installation and then conveniently “forgot to turn it off” is just more of the same laughable behavior from our police department.

    I also don’t trust that the mesh network is turned off simply because the SSID cease to show up on my devices. I don’t claim to be any sort of netsec specialist, but I do know that cloaking SSID broadcast is a trivial action that I’m sure their engineers are capable of doing.

    Comment by Brian — 11:09 am November 14, 2013 #

  4. I second Joe’s #5. We should consider this type of technology as the basis for city wide WiFi. SPD usage of this is a great test of the feasibility of doing so.

    Comment by godofthebasement — 11:26 am November 14, 2013 #

  5. Murray and all other politicians listen. Government is not trusted with these tools. Your recent performance of doing “listening tours” a.k.a. “Vetting” showed us you didn’t care about out comments. None of you addressed our questions, returned our phone calls. I care about government abuse and will be very active on this issue. The voters are watching.

    Comment by Citizen — 11:36 am November 14, 2013 #

  6. The only people who are against these cameras are criminals and liberal extremists (of which are as nutty as the birthers). If these cameras can find one murderer or rapist, then they are a great investment.

    Comment by Hoppy Daze — 12:19 pm November 14, 2013 #

  7. yes, please turn this into free public Wifi

    Comment by Diane — 12:45 pm November 14, 2013 #

  8. Considering how little planning appears to have been done for a naming convention, it makes me wonder if the password is still ‘password’.

    By the way, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out if they are actually off, or if they just stop broadcasting the SSID.

    Comment by Civik — 2:25 pm November 14, 2013 #

  9. Not all people are criminals or liberal extremists…It’s up to the public and neighborhood as well..The eye in the sky is not always helpful.

    Comment by A — 2:30 pm November 14, 2013 #

  10. @Hoppy Daze
    That same argument is what Liberals say about gun background checks. If it stops 1 person, then the background checks are worth it.
    .
    I’m willing to keep the cameras up if we can have mandatory background checks for Firearms.

    Comment by Wes C. Addle — 2:55 pm November 14, 2013 #

  11. Wow. That stranger article is way over the top.

    This network can’t track anyone walking past. It can only track you if you’re connected to it or trying to connect to it. And, even then it’s password protected and encrypted, so your phone or device wouldn’t try to connect to it either.

    These things are just heavy duty wifi hotspots that talk to each other instead of the cable company.

    Comment by Jesse D — 4:43 pm November 14, 2013 #

  12. Ok, chiming in as a systems engineer who’s currently running a 20 node Aruba network…

    1) I’m not sure which WAP models they’re using, but deactivating them via the controller interface should take < 30min. (It's literally a 1-button click per WAP). If they're running the WAPs over Power over Ethernet, powering them off is as simple as turning off the ethernet port.

    2) @Jesse D, not true – the VisualRF part of the AirWave software allows you to track any wifi enabled device within range (connected or not), given that the WAPs have been configured in the VisualRF map.

    3) For anyone calling for this to be public wifi – I don't think that would be a good idea, as that would allow anyone administering the network to see all wifi traffic to & from your device. If you don't like the NSA sniffing all your internet traffic, this would be even more invasive.

    Edit: My previous comment on an earlier story: http://westseattleblog.com/2013/03/spd-surveillance-cameras-meeting-on-alki/#comment-983340

    Comment by Gharp — 5:10 pm November 14, 2013 #

  13. Only criminals and liberal extremists would object to the police searching your house whenever they want.

    Sorry to feed the troll. Hoppy Daze also started a barrage of comments with his/her dimensionally challenged suggestion that a Wal-Mart might be put in at 35th & Graham. I just felt like commenting anyway.

    Comment by Come On In — 5:13 pm November 14, 2013 #

  14. @Gharp,

    That’s interesting to know. Why would my phone be broadcasting my MAC if it wasn’t trying to associate with the WAP?

    Comment by Jesse D — 5:54 pm November 14, 2013 #

  15. Come On In, thank you. Comments like from Hoppy Daze makes me wonder if they ever took a civics class, let alone got an education.

    Comment by TooMuch — 8:28 pm November 14, 2013 #

  16. It alwayd amazes me to see the demands here that govt stop tracking is when most of those same people are disclosing way more data to the large social networks and advertising sites by walking around with devices that are scanning for and reporting back on every wifi network they encounter and the gps grid. Btw those devices are the smart phones in most peoples pockets that are running default settings. Ignorance is bliss.

    Comment by mk — 9:14 pm November 14, 2013 #

  17. @Jesse D, not sure of the exact technical explanation, but looking at my network setup under RAPIDS (the intrusion detection part of AirWave), I get a list of all WiFi enabled devices that have been “seen” by my network, including MAC, device name, and vendor. The network can also be set up to do an active OS query for each device. VisualRF lets me stick those devices on a map relative to the various APs that can see them.

    I found a decent blog post that covers a lot of the features, including screenshots if you’re curious: http://jenniferhuber.blogspot.com/2013/03/aruba-visualrf-apprf-and-airwave.html

    @mk I think a lot of the issue is people get to choose what to share via social media, whereas when the government is tracking you, you have no choice what gets sent or how that information gets used. Most people don’t post private communications, health and prescription info, or personal finances online, and yet one of the recent revelations in the news was that the NSA shares their data with the DEA and IRS. Personally, I don’t have anything to hide, but to me that feels like an incredible violation of privacy as well as an unfair presumption of guilt.

    Comment by Gharp — 9:33 am November 15, 2013 #

  18. To those thinking it is only extremist & criminals objecting, please watch Orwell’s 1984 ASAP. Not saying that it is THAT BAD, of course, but I really don’t need the government watching my every movement. And this is not because I am doing anything wrong but because, frankly, it is none of their business & people should be allotted a certain amount of privacy. I’m positive that if anyone were to watch my life they would be sleeping soundly. (yes, it’s pretty boring & uneventful). Like Gharp said, I would like the ability to choose what to share & what to keep private. I would like to know what the odds are that criminals & others could tap into these cameras & use them for their own purposes?
    P.S. I like my “dumb” phone. :)

    Comment by Alki Res — 1:32 pm November 17, 2013 #

  19. MK

    Many people are concerned about the info that social networks and our phones “give away” as well as the privacy issues raised when the government is involved.

    Just saying – it isn’t really an either/or situation.

    Comment by Lisa — 8:13 am November 19, 2013 #

  20. I can clearly see who was paying attention in history class. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA DOES NOT NEED A GESTAPO,SECRET POLICE OR ANY OTHER BROWN-SHIRT LEFT WING WACKO POLICE AGENCY. SPECIALLY ONE WITH NO OVERSIGHT BY A NON-SOCIALIST REVIEW BOARD. IF THE STATE WOULD USE THE LAWS THAT THEY ALREADY HAVE, INSTEAD OF THE REVOLVING DOOR JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT HAS EVOLVED,THAT ONLY BENEFITS THE LAWYERS/POLITICANS. NOT THE TAXPAYER.. WE CAN NOT PROTECT OUR SELVES , WITHOUT RISKING GOING TO JAIL OURSELVES ..SEATTLE USED TO HAVE A SYSTEM THAT WOULD GIVE A TUNE-UP TO THE BULLY-BOYS ON THE ELEVATOR, WHERE THEY WOULD LEARN THE FOLLEY OF THEIR WAYS.. IT MIGHT BE WORTH BRINGING IT BACK……

    Comment by robert — 11:53 am November 19, 2013 #

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