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Washington ACLU: Seattle traffic camera bill carries massive privacy concerns

Surveillance technology continues to get reviewed by Seattle City Council. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, file)

The Seattle City Council recently passed a bill allowing the use of traffic cameras and license-plate readers under the city’s surveillance ordinance, sparking concerns over privacy and data from the Washington ACLU.

The city’s surveillance ordinance requires that all new and existing technologies be reviewed by city council, detailing an extensive process to ensure that there guidelines in place that protect personal privacy, and promote transparency.

For this latest bill regarding SDOT traffic cameras and license-plate readers, there are concerns that the rule surrounding how that technology can be used hasn’t been properly addressed.

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“We need enforceable rules around these technologies,” the ACLU’s Shankar Narayan told KIRO Radio’s Candy, Mike and Todd Show. “Unfortunately, I think the council missed a golden opportunity to put really strong, clear rules that would be guidelines for both agencies in the public as to how these technologies could be used, and particularly making clear that they were limited to just the purpose of traffic management.”

That’s just a microcosm of how the surveillance ordinance has played out since its implementation. As SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield pointed out, it’s been less than smooth from the get-go.

“This was the first practical test of the ordinance, and it turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare that dragged out over several months,” said Schofield.

When the dust settled, and the council passed the traffic camera bill as a measure Narayan describes as highly problematic.

“We think the way these technologies work where they can literally now surveil everybody all the time in a variety of ways really changes the game,” he noted. ” … it’s entirely possible some of the surveillance is unconstitutional.”

Seattle set to decide on the fate of surveillance technologies

In the near future, Seattle City Council will be reviewing 26 other technologies to assess privacy implications and community impact.

The hope from Narayan and the ACLU is to see that process play out better than it did this go-around.

“We really need a conception of why data matters that’s in line with the way data impacts today.”

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