At the very least, the FBI should release general information on its use of Seattle City Light utility poles for surveillance cameras.
PERHAPS it has come to this: Americans must live — habitually, instinctively — with the assumption that every sound they make is overheard, every movement scrutinized.
A recent effort to get more information on surveillance in Seattle has unfortunately made that dismal assumption more appropriate to live by.
Phil Mocek, a founding member of the Center for Open Policing, wanted to know the locations of cameras installed by the FBI on Seattle City Light utility poles. U.S. District Judge Richard Jones ruled against release of the locations, writing that revealing the locations could threaten national security, jeopardize law-enforcement operations or invade the personal privacy of “innocent third parties.”
Unhappy that City Light had acknowledged the cameras existed, the FBI said it would no longer tell the utility company when or where it might be putting up surveillance equipment.
None of this lends itself to instilling public confidence that the FBI is conducting its operations in ways that will not invade the privacy of innocent people and still result in protecting them from terrorism, drug trafficking or other crimes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington takes the position that the FBI should not be allowed to install the cameras without warrants and that the utility company should not accept them unless there is a warrant.
This would need to be done in ways that shield specific investigations from wanton public disclosure. But warrants are required for gathering other evidence and should be used here as well.
At the very least, providing a broad outline of activities: how many cameras have been installed, when they went up, when they came down, what useful evidence they provided in completed cases. This might make citizens more likely to believe agents are operating in a lawful manner.
Given that the FBI is using public property in Seattle, the public should have some assurance that federal law enforcement is being conducted appropriately.”
It turns out the FBI isn’t very good at providing even the most general information. A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office on the FBI’s facial-recognition program said the FBI delayed updating a required “privacy impact assessment” and did not publish a required notice of operation until five years after the start of an interstate photo system until May — after the GAO had completed its review.
Given that the FBI is using public property in Seattle, the public should have some assurance that federal law enforcement is being conducted appropriately.
Without that, it’s impossible to assume it is.