Seattle Privacy Activist Attempts To Kill Accountability With Transparency

from the it-was-the-requester-in-the-basement-with-the-gmail-address dept

You’d think that accountability and transparency would never get this screwed up. But theoretical good can sometimes become a practical nightmare.

The Seattle police department — one of several police departments around the nation to have spent some time under the DOJ’s microscope — is only weeks away from starting their body cam pilot program. This is good.* Or was, right up until the unlikeliest of wrenches was thrown into the works: a Freedom of Information request.

*Caveats apply.

Now that plan may get put on ice, due in part to an overly broad public records requests. The Seattle Times reported this morning that an anonymous man, known only by the email address, has made an official request for “details on every 911 dispatch on which officers are sent; all the written reports they produce; and details of each computer search generated by officers when they run a person’s name, or check a license plate or address.”

The requestor also wants all video from patrol car cameras currently in use, and plans to request video from body cams once they are implemented. He has requested the information “every day, in spreadsheet form.”

Look, I’m one of the biggest fans of freedom of information laws and police accountability, but what the anonymous requester is demanding creates a massive logistical headache. The problem is the request can’t necessarily be denied because the state law doesn’t provide a legally-sound escape hatch to use to turn down overly-broad requests. Faced with this request, the city created it own exit strategy: pulling the plug on the body cam program.

Not that the requester’s intentions were pure. The unnamed requester (who is in his 20’s and lives with his parents, according to the Seattle Times) has an ideological ax to grind.

“I think what we need is some sort of balance between transparency and privacy,” the requestor said.

The man, who runs a YouTube channel of police video and audio, also spoke to Reuters, stating his belief that “state law is simply too liberal when it comes to privacy.”

The requester is hoping to make the city realize that body cams create potential privacy problems, presumably by posting as many unredacted recordings as possible. Audacious, if a bit disingenuous. Fortunately, the city and the privacy activist have reached an agreement.

The programmer agreed to drop his requests if given videos in a deal that would then see him advise the department on thorny tech issues related to public-records requests for videos, such as how to more quickly redact footage and how to store it online for easy access by the public, media and lawyers.

“Under the law, they get requests regardless of whether or not I go away, and they view what I do as part of the solution,” the programmer, a man in his 20s, told reporters at a joint news conference with police in which he declined to reveal his identity.

With this agreement in place, the body cam pilot program is back on track. The comfort level of Seattle citizens may not be where it once was, however, not after watching the city being extorted into handing the control of body cam footage over to someone who still lives with his parents.

In the long run, this will probably result in less information and less accountability. Someone has given legislators a pretty good reason to patch holes in their freedom of information laws, and given them every excuse to load up on additional restrictions and exemptions. The anonymous requester may have made a point about privacy, but the end result will likely be more secrecy.

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Comments on “Seattle Privacy Activist Attempts To Kill Accountability With Transparency”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 9th, 2014 @ 10:41pm

Most do.

This request is one in which a large cost is not unwarranted. You’re looking at 2+ full time employees just to track and assemble all of this raw data. To start actually redacting footage and info the numbers could quickly grow to dozens of persons and over a million dollars per year

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 9th, 2014 @ 10:41pm

To start actually redacting footage and info the numbers could quickly grow to dozens of persons and over a million dollars per year

RCW 42.56.070 (7)

(b) In determining the actual per page cost or other costs for providing copies of public records, an agency may not include staff salaries, benefits, or other general administrative or overhead charges, unless those costs are directly related to the actual cost of copying the public records. Staff time to copy and mail the requested public records may be included in an agency’s costs.

RCW 22.56.120 Charges for copying.

No fee shall be charged for the inspection of public records. No fee shall be charged for locating public documents and making them available for copying. A reasonable charge may be imposed for providing copies of public records and for the use by any person of agency equipment . . . .

Also see: RCW 42.56.010 Definitions. [“Agency”, “Public record”]

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 9th, 2014 @ 10:41pm

Umm he was saying that two employees would have to be hired specifically to provide for this request daily and do no other work. What you replied doesn’t apply except for the “Staff time to copy and mail the requested public records may be included in an agency’s costs.” part.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Trope Confusion

I love that site.

But I don’t think it’s either. I think we will be seeing more conflicts between these two interests in the future – a right to privacy, and a right to have a transparent government. In a lot of cases it’s probably pretty clear cut as these interests will have little to do with each other, or one can clearly be seen as trumping the other; but there will be some surprising overlaps like this where the two interests sharply conflict with each other.

I think this was a good outcome; arguable not the best. But instead of steamrolling either concern (and both concerns are legitimate in this context I think), they worked with the concerned citizen to continue the bodycam rollout and address the privacy impact.

Now I am anxious to see if this 20-something programmer living with the parents has the technical chops to help the department and the public.

Anonymous Coward says:


Can’t argue against this fellow’s request. He’s only asking for it “all at once” and “before it goes down the memory hole”.

I’d call it either a Time Compression Montage of what would normally play out, or a Leeroy Jenkins preemption of a more normal level of FOIA requests.

It’s definitely a win for Seattle’s FOIA officer to come up with scaleable data release strategies right out of the box rather than end up with several month wait times and an appeals process designed solely to allow further delay.

Anonymous Coward says:

Washington Public Records Act

“state law is simply too liberal when it comes to privacy.”

Washington law
RCW 42.56.030


The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.


Anonymous Coward says:

So, this guy just inserted himself into a police advisory role and no one gets to know his name? I think the citizens of Seattle have every right to know who this dude is since he will now be being paid from public coffers.

FOIA request to find out who he is, anyone? Might have to wait a couple of weeks until he gets officially paid the first time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Changing laws [was ]

Laws will now change…

Washington State Constitution. Article II. Legislative Department.

SECTION 1 LEGISLATIVE POWERS, WHERE VESTED. The legislative authority of the state of Washington shall be vested in the legislature . . . .

(a) Initiative: The first power reserved by the people is the initiative. . . .

(b) Referendum. The second power reserved by the people is the referendum . . . .

Rebecca Schaeffer says:

Not Good Enough

The problem with cop-cams is that they will be datamined to hell and back by the government. Facial recognition, voice recognition, gait recognition, engine tone recognition, etc. The possibilities are practically unlimited – especially when you consider that in 10 years Moore’s Law says they will have 100x the computational power that they have now. Today’s problems with license plate scanners will be nothing compared to what the police (and their contractors) will do with millions of hours of cop-cam footage.

What we need are physical guarantees against against “repurposing” and the only way to do that is have the cameras encrypt the video, leaving only metadata like GPS, timestamp and badge numbers in the clear. Put the decryption keys in the hands of a 3rd party who is legally prevented from releasing the necessary keys without a full-blown warrant signed by a judge (not an administrative order signed by a court clerk). We also need firm data-expiration policies – like a year. Make it easy for anyone (citizens and DoJ) to preserve encrypted copies past the expiration dates, but actual decryption must require a warrant.

There are lots of arguments in favor of loosening up these restrictions – training, general oversight by police commanders, etc. But the risk of abuse is enormous, and we should not let the minor benefits of such uses distract us from the overwhelming potential for authoritarianism that history has taught us is inevitable.

Cop-cams are a powerful tool and because of that power they need to be handled with extreme care – right now we are barrelling ahead in a classic “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” scenario.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not Good Enough

I’m not sure if it’s “fools rush in” as much as it is an “Indy Ploy” (making it up as we go along). A confluence of tragedies involving police misconduct hit the MSM, and those looking for LEO accountability have to take advantage of the situation in a narrow window of opportunity. Body cameras can be a tool of state surveillance just as easily as they can be a tool of citizen empowerment (Giuliani’s sudden change of heart should make anyone nervous), but getting the hardware into PDs seems like a tactical necessity.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Not Good Enough

Put the decryption keys in the hands of a 3rd party who is legally prevented from releasing the necessary keys without a full-blown warrant signed by a judge (not an administrative order signed by a court clerk).

I like where you are going, but we can actually do better; it is better to have technological measures backing up legislative restrictions. Using Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme, we can split the video encryption key into 3 (or more) pieces, distribute them to a judge, the police department head, and a third party (ALCU or something similar), encrypt it with the recipient’s public key (so the recipient has to use a personally assigned private key to decrypt it), and require any 2 to obtain the video encryption key. Now illegal or unethical review of the video requires the collusion of two people, not just one loose cannon.

The only technological weak spot now is preventing the video encryption service from leaking the key before it is wiped (unique key per video). One solution to that is to use public key cryptography so the video encryption service only ever has half the key – the other half is distributed beforehand. The only problem with that is you cannot use a separate key for each video, so one order to unlock one video exposes the key and can be used on any other video. But either solution is better than nothing, and definitely much better than entrusting the key(s) to any one entity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I take it you’d be okay with being followed around every waking moment by a CCTV camera?

RCW 42.56.050 Invasion of privacy, when.

A person’s “right to privacy,” “right of privacy,” “privacy,” or “personal privacy,” as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public. The provisions of this chapter dealing with the right to privacy in certain public records do not create any right of privacy beyond those rights that are specified in this chapter as express exemptions from the public’s right to inspect, examine, or copy public records.

I tend to think that an uninvited, warrantless entry into someone’s home should generally be presumed to be “highly offensive to a reasonable person”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Something sounds fishy about this request, and the requester. If he was concerned about privacy. Why didn’t he request dashboard cam footage from police cruisers and street cams, ages ago.

Now all of a sudden lapel cameras are about to be deployed, which police officers hate, and now we have an anonymous requester making a big deal about camera privacy.

This seems way to convenient.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Dashcam video [was ]

(Sorry about the previous n/t post—my pinkie slipped.)

SPD Must Stop Illegally Withholding Dashcam Records, Says WA Supreme Court”, by Dominic Holden, The Stranger, Jun 12, 2014

The Seattle Police Department violated public records laws when it unilaterally refused to release documents relating to squad cars’ dash-cam footage, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled this morning in a 4-5 decision. The justices remanded the case to a lower court to decide details of the specific records in question; however, the ruling appears to end the Seattle Police Department’s practice of selectively refusing to release dash-cam footage . . .

Anonymous Coward says:

Washington Open Government Internet Manual

The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has made available online an Open Government Internet Manual. The first two chapters of this deskbook cover Washington’s Public Records Act.

The Attorney General’s Open Government Internet Manual (Deskbook) was produced by the Attorney General’s Office with the assistance of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and local and state government organizations. The deskbook is a comprehensive, easy-to-read overview intended to help clarify provisions of the law and hopefully prevent future disagreements. This Internet Manual provides a general summary and is not intended to provide a complete discussion of every detail of the Public Records Act or Open Public Meetings Act. Also, readers should review developments in the law since this manual was published.

N.B. This deskbook was last revised in 2007.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

The comfort level of Seattle citizens may not be where it once was, however, not after watching the city being extorted into handing the control of body cam footage over to someone who still lives with his parents.

So when congressmen invoke The Basement Dweller it’s an offensive stereotype, but when a tech-savvy person does something you disagree with, just look how quickly it gets trotted out…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, the youtube activities say a lot more about this guy than his ability to secure his own living environment. Although the combination of the two + the mysterious persona are just ripe for imagery of wearing bed sheet capes around the house.

Still, this is troublesome the guy gets to advise the police in exchange for not harassing them? Way to win a position on the merit of your ability to use laws to intentionally disrupt normal police activities. That’s a way to show people you’re a good guy.

He didn’t even do anything about his original issue on the balance of privacy and transparency. I guess he has a magician’s hat he runs around in too for that well done smoke and mirrors act.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you’d like to look at a comparable, but possibly much larger situation, ask the Air Force how much resources they have to dedicate to an annual blizzard of FOIA’s about UFO’s. Roswell, etc. If you inquire while making clear you are not a believer, and you are sympathetic to the AF, you’ll probably get a good story.

Anonymous Coward says:

Open Government Training

As authorized by Open Government Trainings Act (effective July 1, 2014), the Office of the Attorney General has created an Open Government Training web page. While this resource is oriented towards those public officials and agency records officers who require training under the OGT act, it may be quite helpful to others.

In fact, I’d encourage people to view the 22 minute “Office of the Attorney General Video – Public Records Act” (lesson 2). This short but informative video is available both from the OGT web page, and on YouTube.

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