All Along the Watchtower

By • on February 24, 2013 10:18 pm

Fans of the surprising-radical-for-American-network-TV CBS series “Person of Interest” recognize its dystopian premise immediately: a perhaps-speculative, perhaps-real contemporary world where a massive government surveillance apparatus and interlocking databases keep real-time watch on everyone, everywhere. “The Machine” was created as a terrorist-flagging response to 9-11; the dual tracks of the series are the weekly episodes of saving lives our government doesn’t care to save (because they’re threatened, but not by terrorists), and the longer series arc of keeping The Machine’s terrifying power out of the hands of government and corporate forces who would abuse it. It’s a great premise for a TV show.

And Seattle residents keep getting reminded of just how plausible the premise is.

Even as the Seattle Police Department was being hammered in late January over its acquisition of two surveillance drones – a program temporarily shut down by Mayor McGinn the following week – word emerged that SPD was also quietly installing a network of surveillance cameras along Seattle’s waterfront. The 30 cameras and wireless antenna system connecting them are courtesy a $5 million federal Homeland Security grant, ostensibly to help with port security.

As news broke of the cameras – after they’d been installed – an SPD spokesman reassured us that there would be strict controls on who had access to the cameras and the information they generate, and that SPD was “creating policies that will govern how the cameras are used, how the information will be stored, and for how long.”

In other words, cameras were already up in parts of Seattle’s waterfront – the ones at Alki are at the height of a third floor condo window – but SPD still didn’t have any policies on how they would be used. SPD also confirmed that it wanted to use the cameras to monitor and gather evidence on ordinary criminal activity – raising, again, both the question of who would be overseeing the surveillance, and “mission creep” from the original terrorism prevention purpose of the program.

Three weeks later, on February 20, public outcry had been sufficient to force a city council committee hearing – at which SPD couldn’t answer the same questions. Afterwards, council members Bruce Harrell and Mike O’Brien noted that SPD still needed to address “how the cameras will be programmed to respect the privacy of residents; whether the cameras will rotate or remain in a fixed position; who will operate them; and how the information will be stored and for how long.”

Every one of these issues also came up in the drone controversy. Before McGinn spiked the program on February 7, Harrell had introduced legislation to create guidelines on how the drones could be used, specifically because nearly a year they had been acquired with federal grants, SPD still hadn’t come up with any. Initially, SPD tried to explain that the units would be great for Search and Rescue – in the rugged, uncharted wilderness, presumably, of Rainier Beach or the Central District.

As ever, the obvious question is: why? Americans’ civil liberties and right to privacy have steadily eroded in recent decades. Conservative courts have all but eviscerated the Fourth Amendment, consistently expanding government and law enforcement power each time surveillance and communications technology advances. But with local crime rates low in recent years – despite the poor economy – and with the War On Drugs falling into ever-greater public disfavor, why does law enforcement need expensive, invasive tools like this?

The natural answer seems to be, “Because they can get it.” A similar dynamic has fueled the insane militarization of local law enforcement agencies in recent decades, with expensive, military-grade tools weaponry most departments will rarely if ever use. However, when agencies like SPD ask for such shiny new toys, what politician wants to be seen as “soft on crime?” So law enforcement gets their new toys, at the expense of, say, education or safety net programs that would keep more people from being entangled with the justice system in the first place.

A March 31 grant deadline looms to make the camera system fully operational from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens. Councilmembers O’Brien and Harrell stated after last week’s council hearing that they didn’t think SPD could have operational policies in place by then. SPD, in general, has been eager to watch everyone else, but less than enthusiastic about efforts to ensure its own transparency.

McGinn dropped the drone program – a rare instance where he didn’t eagerly do SPD’s bidding – solely because of widespread public opposition to it. With McGinn running for re-election, Harrell running for his job, and a host of other local politicians also unusually sensitive this year to the will of voters, perhaps public pressure can also rein in this latest attempt at unfettered government surveillance. Something needs to.

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