Seattle officials urge police not to switch on surveillance cameras yet

Feb 20, 2013

Seattle city council members said today they want new laws on the books before police turn on a string of surveillance cameras. The network of 30 or so waterfront cameras is being installed in the name of port security, but citizens say those cameras could also turn around and peek into neighborhoods. Members of the city council who approved the project last year now say they didn’t know how troubling the surveillance would be.

Public safety officials appeared before a council committee to explain the privacy safeguards they have in place. Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said those include placing digital black boxes over homes’ windows in the camera view.

“Cause I would say the same thing: I do not want our government having cameras that look in my living room. And these are not cameras that look into people’s living rooms,” Kimerer said.

But public safety committee chair Bruce Harrell said there are still too many unanswered questions.

“I’m still not – to be honest with you – not fully convinced that the masking technology gets us all the way where we need to be,” Harrell said.

He said legislation in the works will set out rules for any new surveillance technology, and urged police not to activate the cameras until then. Deputy Chief Kimerer indicated that the department would not go against the city council’s wishes. The cameras had been set to go live at the end of March.

Members of the public also had their first chance to weigh in on the surveillance network. Several speakers supported the cameras, including a Chinatown businesswoman who extolled the private cameras in her neighborhood for deterring crime. Most of the speakers, though, condemned the cameras as a step toward what they called a police state.

Police say they’ll do more public outreach around the system, which includes a wireless broadband “mesh network” serving police, firefighters, public utilities and transit. It is being funded through a $5 million federal homeland security grant.