SEATTLE — In February, the Seattle Police Department announced it bought what's called a "mesh network," that will be used as a dedicated wireless network for emergency responders. What SPD did not say is that the network is capable of tracking anyone with a device that has a Wi-Fi connection.
"They now own a piece of equipment that has tracking capabilities so we think that they should be going to City Council and presenting a protocol for the whole network that says they won't be using it for surveillance purposes," said Jamela Debelak of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A spokesperson for Seattle Police said the network is not being used right now. A draft policy is being reviewed by the city attorney's office and will eventually go before the City Council.
The network includes 160 wireless access points that are mounted on poles across Seattle. Every time a device looks for a Wi-Fi signal and the access point recognizes it, it can store that data. The manufacturer of the network points out in a manual that the mesh network can store IP addresses, device types, applications used by the devices, current location, and historical location.
This information can be stored and connected for the last 1,000 times a person is connected with a specific device. The network shows up online in public places usually as intersections in the city such as, "4th&Pike," "4th&University" and "3rd&Union."
"Even if we assume that the mesh network was installed by good people for good reasons, there's no reason to believe that the people controlling the network in the future will use it for the public good," said Brendan Kiley of alternative news weekly the Stranger. "We need to have a serious public conversation and establish some very clear rules about how new surveillance technologies should and shouldn't be used -- with very real penalties for breaking those rules." Kiley first reported on the technology Wednesday in The Stranger.
"We believe that people should be free to move about without having the government track their movements unless there really is reason to believe they're engaged in some criminal activity," said Debelak. Seattle police could not explain why the network appears to be online.
Council member Bruce Harrell pointed out the need for SPD to be able to collect some of this information.
"While I understand that a lot of people have concerns about the government having access to this information, when we have large public gatherings like the situation like in Boston and something bad happens, the first thing we want to know is how are we using technology to capture that information," Harrell said.
He added that SPD needs to establish guidelines before it is used.
"The council made it crystal clear that before the 'on' button is turned on, before it's being used they have to go to the public," Harrell said.
The network was bought with a Homeland Security grant for $2.6 million. A spokesperson for the city attorney's office said a government affairs attorney is working with SPD to review the policy but there is no timeline as to when the review will be completed.
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