SEATTLE — A new surveillance idea in Seattle is putting some people on edge. Police want to use facial recognition technology to scan surveillance video to identify possible criminals. But the proposal comes after the National Security Agency scandals sparked the revelations of Edward Snowden. Now many people are worried about their privacy rights, including the right not to be monitored by their government.
The Seattle Police Department is asking City Council permission to use a federal Department of Homeland Security grant to buy the facial recognition software. They would use it to quickly compare mug shots already in their database with surveillance video to identify possible suspects. Assistant Police Chief Carmen Best described for councilmembers the circumstances under which and officer would be able to use the software. “An officer has to reasonably believe that a person has been involved in a crime or committed a crime,” she said.
But this comes in the wake of privacy controversies that kept the Police Department from deploying surveillance drones. A similar controversy forced the department to turn of the special Wi-Fi network they also got a federal grant to install. “I think the Seattle Police Department has a well-earned reputation for distrust by the public,” said Phil Mocek of the Seattle Privacy Coalition. The Coalition was formed in the wake of the drone controversy and members say the council isn’t doing enough to keep the system from becoming part of a nationwide database. “Then you’ve got sort of a small scale Seattle version of the dragnet surveillance that’s been happening nationally that’s been in the news for the past year,” said the coalition’s David Robinson.
Public Safety Committee Chair Bruce Harrell said there would not be a “firewall” to keep data from being shared with the federal government. “There may be times when the federal government may want to look at that database that may be very appropriate if we have an international terrorist here that might have committed a misdemeanor.” But Harrell says the council will monitor what outside agencies are asking for information and will make changes in policy if necessary.
The full council is scheduled to vote on the request March 5.