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Updated Friday, February 1, 2013 at 06:27 AM

Waterfront surveillance cameras stir privacy fears

By Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle’s waterfront vistas have long been popular with camera-toting tourists and shutterbugs.

But the recent installation of more than two dozen security cameras along the city’s shoreline, from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens, is drawing concern from some residents and a warning from civil-rights activists.

“This is another step toward a surveillance society where the government is increasingly using technology to monitor people’s actions and movements without having a warrant or a specific reason to do so,” said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The 30 cameras, along with a wireless mesh network created by 160 antenna, are funded by a $5 million federal grant aimed at increasing the Port of Seattle and the city’s ability to respond to hazards and emergencies, according to Seattle Police Department Capt. Chris Fowler. The cameras will provide police with a sweeping view of the port facilities, Elliott Bay and the shoreline.

Detective Monty Moss, in charge of surveillance platforms, said they’re hoping to have the cameras operational by March 31.

Fowler said there will be strict controls on who has access to the cameras and the information they contain. He said the department is creating policies that will govern how the cameras are used, how the information will be stored and for how long.

While the cameras are currently stationary, Fowler said eventually they will be able to rotate. However, he said the cameras have a “masking” feature that will automatically prevent the camera from taking pictures inside windows by blacking out the view.

“We can’t rewind and go back and remove the masking and look in,” Fowler said.

Nonetheless, Fowler and Moss said that if a camera records criminal activity, it could be used for prosecution.

“Times are changing,” said Moss. “We can’t go into court anymore unless we have DNA or video. The camera is a tool that gives us evidence that shows guilt or innocence.”

Money for the cameras and the wireless network came from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to benefit a number of regional agencies, including the Coast Guard, King County, the Port of Seattle and the city’s fire, police and transportation departments.

Last year, the Police Department’s approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to train operators to operate unmanned aerial vehicles — or drones — for use in investigations and search-and-rescue operations and to assist during natural disasters unleashed fierce protests from residents who said they did not want to live under police surveillance. The drones are not yet in use.

Residents and the ACLU called on city leaders to draft laws that would tightly regulate what kind of information can be collected by drones, who can collect it, how the information can be used and how long it will be kept.

Honig, of the ACLU, said the same kind of laws should be drafted for the use of law-enforcement surveillance cameras. He said he was concerned to learn that the cameras were being installed before any serious conversations with the public had taken place.

“There are going to be some big questions for the City Council and the mayor. Are you going to hold any hearings on this so the public can weigh in? And if so, when? Do you see any privacy implications and how will they be handled? The public officials need to get out in front of this and set controls on uses of surveillance technology or it will control us.”

“This is a policy issue about what kind of a society we want to be rolling toward,” he said.

Christine Clarridge can be reached at cclarridge@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8983.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.


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