Privacy activist Phil Mocek addresses the Seattle City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee about the federal government’s secretive video surveillance program in Seattle. Screenshot via the Seattle Channel.

Sawant Blasts Secret Federal Surveillance Cameras on Seattle Utility Poles

The cameras have been used, among other things, to spy on restaurant workers suspected of illicitly dumping grease.

Yesterday, Phil Mocek of the Seattle Privacy Coalition and Shankar Narayun of the ACLU WA briefed Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Energy and Environment Committee on the secret video cameras federal agencies have been putting up around town.

It all began on July 7, 2015 when Lee Colleton—a fellow Privacy Coalition member—was walking down Martin Luther King Way in a solidarity march for the deaths of nine South Carolinians gunned down at church by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Colleton looked up and noticed a surveillance camera.

He got curious. Whose was it? Colleton asked the city about the cameras, but no one seemed to know anything. Using a pocket telescope, Colleton found a phone number written on the camera which belonged to one Todd E. Reeves. According to Reeves’ LinkedIn account, he installed cameras for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. On August 6 ATF spokesperson Brian Bennet confirmed that the cameras indeed were theirs and said they were being used in a criminal investigation. According to Brendan Kiley (then at The Stranger) Bennett also said that the ATF had an agreement with the City of Seattle to allow the cameras.

When Mocek read about Colleton’s efforts, a lightbulb went off in his head. He submitted public records requests to the city and the ATF asking for a copy of that agreement, along with any associated discussion. The ATF ignored his request, but City Light didn’t, and according to their response the alleged agreement with the ATF authorizing the video cameras does not exist.

Something else in City Light’s response to his records request caught Mocek’s eye, though: an email from Doug Williams, security manager for Seattle City Light, sent to multiple recipients, one of whom was listed as belonging to the FBI. In the email, Williams asks whether one of the cameras in the Central District belongs to any of “your respective organizations.” If so, he promises, “Just let me know so I can add it to the list…As always this is kept confidential.”

So Mocek submitted a second public records request asking for a copy of “the list” Williams refers to. City Light found it, but delayed release and called the Department of Justice to give them a heads up about Mocek’s record request. The DoJ filed a temporary restraining order against release of the list in June last year; last week a federal judge made the order permanent.

So federal police agents are surveilling Seattle public streets, but they argue and a federal judge agrees that because the cameras are part of a sensitive criminal investigation(s), Seattleites can’t know when the cameras are on or where their data goes. Thanks to Mocek’s records requests, we know the nature of at least one of these investigations: city employees convinced federal agents to video surveil local restaurants “to capture restaurant workers pouring grease down our vault drains.”

The fact that feds were ready to deploy video surveillance to capture grease dumpers, says Mocek, “is proof that this system is not reserved for felony crimes.” What else might federal police agencies (now part of the Trump administration) use those cameras for? We live, after all, in a time when cameras can read license plates and faces; it’s plausible that by comparing feeds between several cameras spread across one one area, a computer could automatically observe, record and track the movements of an entire neighborhood or more.

“It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding like a tin-hat nutter,” Mocek observes.

At yesterday’s committee meeting, Sawant grilled (but only, like, medium-rare) Jim Baggs, Customer Service, Communications and Regulatory Affairs officer at Seattle City Light, about how much City Light knows about the cameras. Baggs pled ignorance, concentrating on how City Light has responded to the cameras’ controversy by now automatically referring all requests from federal agencies about installing surveillance equipment to Seattle police. “Our internal conversation was surrounding what’s really the role of the utility in getting involved in either the tracking or the decision making about surveillance cameras,” Baggs said. “And we didn’t feel we were in a position to need have an active role there. And so that’s when we backed away and tried to stay out of that” since roughly 2015, he said.

Committee vice chair Debora Juarez didn’t respond to Bags directly, but later asked Narayun wryly, “When Seattle City Light, as a city department, asks for surveillance equipment for when people are pouring grease down drains—in that incident your position is they should have come to City Council, per the law, to get permission?”

“I would have said yes,” Narayun replied.

(CLARIFICATION: The attempt at grease dumping surveillance occurred in 2011; Seattle’s surveillance equipment ordinance passed two years later, in 2013.)

He advised the council “to identify the federal agencies that are involved and perhaps engage with them in order to ensure appropriate checks and balances around the use of the cameras.” If the city just takes the cameras down, he warned, the feds could just set them up again on non-city property. But that would be a pain in the neck for the feds, because then they’d have to go and work out deals with every individual property owner hosting the cameras. That may “incentivize” them to agree to certain regulations in exchange for access to Seattle’s many utility poles.

Narayun said such regulations should entail a couple things:

-The City of Seattle must know how many cameras there are and when they’re installed and taken down.

-Every camera must be authorized by a court-ordered warrant, thus guaranteeing it is tied to a specific investigation. When the warrant goes away, so do the related cameras.

-Rules must be in place to minimize collection of data on “innocent people” and destroy it if it’s not relevant.

Yesterday’s meeting was the first on the subject of the secret federal police cameras, and it ended without any plan. Sawant intends to continue the discussion at an as-yet-unscheduled future meeting. The state ACLU has also submitted draft legislation that would beef up the city’s existing rules on surveillance. That will to go to González’s Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans (GESCNA) committee.

Sawant made her opposition to the cameras clear, both in committee and in interview. “It’s not just about technological equipment,” she told Seattle Weekly. “It’s about normalizing a Big Brother mentality.”

This story has been edited to correct Lee Colleton’s last name.