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Feds Installing Spy Cameras on Seattle Utility Poles; State Can Stop It

Information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed federal agencies use city utility poles to install spy cameras in Seattle, circumventing a city ordinance intended to prevent surveillance. State action could stop this kind of cooperation.

OffNow’s Fourth Amendment Protection Act prohibits state cooperation with any federal agency conducting mass warrantless surveillance. It targets agencies like the NSA and was originally conceived as a way to turn off the water at the data collection center in Utah.

Often time people ask us, “There are no data centers or NSA facilities in our state; why should we fight for the Fourth Amendment Protection Act?”

Well, it isn’t just about data centers.

In fact, one city is finding out how refusal to provide material support to warrantless surveillance could have hindered federal agents illegally bypassing a city ordinance to install surveillance cameras throughout Seattle.

After surveillance cameras started appearing even after a stringent 2013 ordinance restricted them in the city, Phil MocekĀ  started digging find out why.

According to initial emails provided by the agency, the cameras came from a variety of federal offices, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to Michael Morisy, writer at MuckRock, after failed attempts to get a response from Seattle PD and the Department of Transportation through Twitter, Mocek requested information from Seattle City Light to get to the bottom of why the ATF had installed the cameras.

“On August 6, 2015, after revealing that surveillance cameras recently installed on publicly-owned utility poles in Seattle, Washington–seemingly in violation of Seattle ordinance 124142, which requires City Council approval prior to the acquisition or use of surveillance equipment by City of Seattle–were owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (“ATF”), reporter Brendan Kiley of The Stranger [reported][1] that ATF spokesman Brian Bennett told him that ATF have an agreement with public utility Seattle City Light (“SCL”) that allows them to install covert or overt cameras without notifying other city agencies.”

The City’s public utility responded saying, “After a thorough search, Seattle City Light does not have any records responsive to your public records request dated August 12, 2015 for an agreement about camera installation between ATF and SCL staff.”

Seattle City Light later asked agencies what the cameras were for, only to receive a reply from ATF stating it was for an “ongoing investigation.”

Further digging revealed at least some of the spy cameras were used for very “un-federal” purposes, according to MuckRock:

“It looks like at least some of the uses of the federal surveillance technology were over fairly local issues, including surveillance aimed at improper disposal of grease by local restaurants…What else was being surveilled in Seattle, and why, however, remains largely an open question.”

Banning state and local cooperation with this kind of federal surveillance could stop some of this spying. It took city utility poles to mount the cameras, something that could not happen under the Fourth Amendment Protection Act.

The Fourth Amendment Protection Act is not just for data centers. It’s meant to hinder the ATF, FBI or whomever from engaging in unwarranted surveillance. Seattle made strides by restricting the use of surveillance cameras in the city, but the state needs to help push back against warrantless surveillance from rogue federal agents installing their own camera on state and local property.

To find out more about the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, click HERE.