The City of Seattle has long debated if surveillance technology is a public safety tool or a threat to privacy. The Seattle City Council is trying to balance those competing viewpoints as it revises the city's surveillance ordinance.
The council not only wants to be able to approve new and existing surveillance technology used by city agencies, it also wants to sign off on what actual "data" is collected as well.
"As I walk through the city, I see more and more attached to light poles that I don't know what they are," said Councilmember Mike O'Brien at a committee hearing on Wednesday.
Seattle police has collected a considerable inventory of surveillance tools over the years, like these cameras along the waterfront in West Seattle.
The department is currently not using the cameras. Nor is it using the controversial computer software SPD purchased to monitor social media. It also dumped the drones acquired through a federal grant in 2012. All of them met with public outcry.
Now all of the department's surveillance technology, new and old, could soon be under review, along with the data it collects.
"It gives the city council an opportunity to vet how the data that is being acquired," said Shankar Narayan, technology director at the A.C.L.U. of Washington.
Seattle Police Chief Operations Officer Brian Maxey told the council the department was wary of adding another layer of oversight to their investigative process.
"We're on board with opening up the technology and explaining the why and what and how we used this," Maxey said. "And being transparent about that. But on the back end, we need flexibility to share information for law enforcement investigations."
If the council gets to approve existing tools and data collected, it's unclear what kind of backlog this could create. That is why the parameters laid out in that ordinance will play a major role.
The council is expected to vote on the new language next month.
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