Seattle shoreline cameras upset some residents

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SEATTLE — Thirty cameras are watching Seattle’s shoreline for security reasons, but some local residents and the American Civil Liberties Union say they are a threat to citizen rights.

“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 cameras that were paid for by a $5 million federal grant are supposed to help the Port of Seattle and the city respond to hazards and emergencies, The Seattle Times reported in Saturday’s newspaper.

The cameras will give police with a sweeping view of the port facilities, Elliott Bay and the shoreline, according to Seattle Police Department Capt. Chris Fowler.

They hope to have the cameras operational by the end of March, said Detective Monty Moss, who is in charge of surveillance platforms.

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.

The cameras have a “masking” feature that will automatically prevent the camera from taking pictures inside windows by blacking out the view.

Fowler and Moss did acknowledge, however, 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.”

Last year, the Police Department received 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. That 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.

The ACLU’s Honig 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.”

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