Information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed federal agencies used a partnership with a local government-run utility to install spy cameras in Seattle, circumventing a city ordinance intended to prevent surveillance. State action could stop this kind of cooperation.
After surveillance cameras started appearing even after a stringent 2013 ordinance restricted them in Seattle, Phil Mocek started digging find out why.
According to initial emails provided by the agency, the cameras came from a variety of federal offices, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to Michael Morisy, writer at MuckRock, after failed attempts to get a response from Seattle PD and the Department of Transportation through Twitter, Mocek requested information from Seattle City Light (the local power company) to get to the bottom of why the ATF had installed the cameras.
“On August 6, 2015, after revealing that surveillance cameras recently installed on publicly-owned utility poles in Seattle, Washington–seemingly in violation of Seattle ordinance 124142, which requires City Council approval prior to the acquisition or use of surveillance equipment by City of Seattle–were owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (“ATF”), reporter Brendan Kiley of The Stranger [reported] that ATF spokesman Brian Bennett told him that ATF have an agreement with public utility Seattle City Light (“SCL”) that allows them to install covert or overt cameras without notifying other city agencies.”
The City’s public utility responded saying, “After a thorough search, Seattle City Light does not have any records responsive to your public records request dated August 12, 2015 for an agreement about camera installation between ATF and SCL staff.”
Seattle City Light later asked agencies what the cameras were for, only to receive a reply from ATF stating it was for an “ongoing investigation.”
Further digging revealed at least some of the spy cameras were used for very “un-federal” purposes, according to MuckRock:
“It looks like at least some of the uses of the federal surveillance technology were over fairly local issues, including surveillance aimed at improper disposal of grease by local restaurants…What else was being surveilled in Seattle, and why, however, remains largely an open question.”
HOW TO STOP THIS
The state-level Fourth Amendment Protection Act prohibits state and local cooperation with any federal agency conducting mass warrantless surveillance. It targets agencies like the NSA and was originally conceived as a way to turn off the water at the data collection center in Utah.
A similar bill is currently active for 2016 in Washington State. House Bill 1473 (HB1473) from Rep. Dave Taylor is being held up in the House Judiciary Committee by Chair Laurie Jinkins.
Often time people ask us, “There are no data centers or NSA facilities in our state; why should we fight for the Fourth Amendment Protection Act?”
Well, it isn’t just about data centers.
In fact, Seattle is a perfect example.
By banning “material support or resources” to federal mass, warrantless surveillance programs, all state and local governments would be prohibited from doing anything to help further such programs. That would include anything from provision of water to agreements that allow use of government-owned utility poles for surveillance cameras.
Whether it’s drones, or stingrays, an NSA data center, or surveillance cameras on a utility pole, in every situation the federal government relies on some kind of support or resources from state and local government. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act puts this to an end.
In Washington State, contact Rep. Jinkins and urge her to bring HB1473 up for a vote in the House Judiciary committee. (details here)
To find out more about legislation for your state, click HERE.