Seattle invites public to comment on its surveillance technologies

The city will host five public meetings in the coming weeks to ensure locals have a chance to be included in the evolution of the local government's privacy policy.
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Following a privacy ordinance passed last year, Seattle has scheduled five public meetings where residents will be encouraged to share their opinions and concerns about technologies the city government uses for surveillance.

The technologies up for discussion beginning Oct. 22 will include six of 29 technologies flagged by the city as meeting the definition of surveillance tools, including automatic license plate readers, traffic cameras and emergency scene cameras used by the fire department. Each meeting will feature presentations from alternating departments, such as police, fire and transportation.

As a city that has grown a reputation as privacy-conscious — Seattle is one of the few cities in the U.S. that employs a chief privacy officer — Seattle has also taken the additional step of translating flyers announcing the public meetings into seven languages other than English. The extra effort to reach non-English speakers underscores the meetings’ intent, which is to provide extra consideration of how surveillance technologies could disproportionately target minority groups.

Seattle’s surveillance ordinance grew out of a 2016 campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union to encourage the passage of such local legislation. A few other communities, including Nashville; Somerville, Massachusetts; and Santa Clara County, California, have also passed similar measures, with a handful of others considering ordinances requiring public input, but the effort still remains scattered despite accusations by civil rights groups that new technologies are being adopted without local governments first doing due diligence on potential negative effects.


Facial recognition systems have been widely reported as less accurate for non-white, non-male faces, while cell-phone surveillance technology used by law enforcement known as Stingrays, have been correlated with disproportionate use in non-white neighborhoods.

Many surveillance technologies, such as automatic license plate readers, are broadly controversial, not necessarily targeting any one demographic, but raising questions of data collection and retention. Where does the city collect license plate data? What does it do with it and how long does it keep that information? City officials hope to field those questions in the upcoming meetings.

More information about these meetings, along with surveillance impact reports, can be found on Seattle’s privacy website .

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