Civil Liberties

These White Boxes Could Track Your Every Move

Seattle PD turned surveillance WiFi off to work out privacy policy; nine months later, still no policy.


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In fall 2013, Seattle, WA, residents noticed mysterious white boxes installed on street corners throughout downtown Seattle. Their interest only grew when curious WiFi networks with the names of those street corners began to pop up on their mobile phones as available networks to connect to. The boxes and WiFi turned out to be a wireless mesh network set up by the city for emergency personnel to communicate in case of a disaster.

"Ultimately it's designed to keep our community safe, to help out with criminal investigations and just to be a part of effective government," says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a public information officer with the Seattle Police Department (SPD). The network was paid for with a $2.7 million port security grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

But privacy advocates say the network may be capable of much more than its intended use, including tracking the location of Seattle residents. After the story broke in The Stranger newspaper, it was met with so much concern from the public that the SPD turned off the mesh network in November 2013 and promised to develop protocols for its use.

"Protocols would give the Seattle police the opportunity to show how they are going to use surveillance technology to protect people and show how they are going to protect their privacy," says Brian Robick, senior policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

But, with focus turned finding a new police chief, the city has gone nine months without a finalized privacy policy for the network. Robick says that the policy is important because—although the SPD says its intention is not to track users and Aruba Networks, the company that manufactured the network, told Reason TV that the product bought by Seattle is not designed to track users—things could change in the future with a new police chief or software updates.

"The city council has asked that every single time you add something or change something that the police disclose it, and we're still waiting for them to disclose what they are going to do with the base line, but without that we have no assurances of what they are going to add onto the network to change it to do other things," says Robick.

Although it's hard to predict what a city might do with newly acquired technology, the city's 2012 Request for Proposal shows diagrams that would have given the Washington State Fusion Center a direct connection to the mesh network. The Washington State Fusion Center tries to stop major crimes and terrorist acts by collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data submitted by local law enforcement agencies like the SPD and federal agencies like DHS and the FBI.

"That has been a surprising bit of information to some of the folks we have spoken with in the city and the police department when we bring it up," says Robick who points out that he doesn't think it's their intention to have that connection anymore.

"But I do think that it's interesting that when cities are campaigning for grants that they build in additional information sharing and, in a way, barter the people's privacy in order to get the funds to put up these systems."

UPDATE: The city of Seattle has confirmed that the $2.7 million cost of the mesh network only covered equipment and services and after installation the total cost of the network was $4.4 million.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Alex Manning and Detrick. Music by Ergo Phizmiz and Podington Bear.

About 6:12 minutes.

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