Court Says Location Of FBI's Utility Pole-Piggybacking Surveillance Cameras Can Remain Secret

from the OPERATION-REMORA dept

Last June, the FBI engaged in a public records lawsuit on its own behalf, seeking to prevent the city of Seattle from disclosing the locations of cameras the agency had mounted on city-owned utility poles. At the center of the case (for a short while) was privacy activist Phil Mocek, whose public records request for this information had spurred the FBI into action.

In its arguments against the city's disclosure of this information, the government posited the novel theory that revealing the cameras' locations would violate the privacy of those the FBI was actively surveilling.

Because of their close proximity to the subjects of surveillance, unauthorized disclosure of the locations of current or previously installed pole cameras can reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those persons under investigation who have not yet been charged.

It made several related arguments in hopes of keeping this info from being revealed, including a modified "mosaic" theory and that, while all surveillance cameras are nominally created equal, the FBI's were more equal than others.

The FBI’s use of surveillance cameras must be distinguished from that of any other state or federal law enforcement agency on two principal grounds. First, in light of the FBI’s unique law enforcement and national security missions, there are particular sensitivities attached to the FBI’s use of surveillance equipment and the tradecraft associated with that use. Second, unlike the use of surveillance cameras by other entities, such as state and local governments or private businesses, which may operate video surveillance cameras in public locations to deter crime or promote public safety generally, the FBI utilizes surveillance cameras only in furtherance of an authorized investigation of a particular subject(s).

The FBI presumably doesn't use its cameras to troll for criminal activity, at least according to its courtroom assertions. The City of Seattle, however, didn't feel particularly compelled to protect the location info of the FBI's parasitic contributions to its utility poles. Phil Mocek was removed from the FBI's suit, leaving the city to defend its proposed disclosure against the FBI's claims of a future full of unsurveilled criminal activity.

The FBI's lawsuit has now wrapped up with the agency coming out on top. In a short order, federal judge Richard Jones finds the location of the FBI's publicly-mounted cameras to be deserving of ongoing secrecy. From the court's order [PDF]:

The United States contends, and the Court is persuaded, that the requested information is (1) protected by the federal law enforcement privilege; (2) federal property, subject to the FBI’s right to control and prohibit the disclosure of the information by the City, absent the express authorization of the FBI; and (3) expressly protected from disclosure by the PRA. The Court is further persuaded that the disclosure of the requested information by the City will cause irreparable harm to important federal interests, namely, the ability to carry out effective investigations of criminal violations and national security threats.

The order includes an injunction that prevents the city from releasing this information for the rest of forever, no matter the underlying circumstances.

The City of Seattle, including any officers, agents and employees thereof, are hereby permanently enjoined from disclosing, in response to any request under the Washington PRA, or otherwise, the… information that it has received from the FBI, absent the express authorization to do so by the FBI…

This includes information that seemingly would have no further law enforcement use, like those used in closed or fruitless investigations. Unless some of these cameras are located in sparsely-populated areas of the city, it's highly unlikely anyone could work their way backward from the camera's location to determine the identity of the surveillance targets. But the court sees it the way the FBI sees it: that anything it declares to be protected by "law enforcement privilege" should remain that way indefinitely.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 2:49am

    Gotta love the classics

    Because of their close proximity to the subjects of surveillance, unauthorized disclosure of the locations of current or previously installed pole cameras can reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those persons under investigation who have not yet been charged.

    I see the FBI is also a fan of the Peeping Tom Defense, which first came to my attention when the NSA was having their dirty laundry aired and it's cheerleaders were going on about how telling people they were being spied on would violate their privacy, even while the NSA grabbing everything they could get their digital hands on somehow wasn't a violation of privacy.

    Because you can't have your privacy violated unless you know someone is watching you apparently.

    Just wish the court had stopped their grovelling at the FBI's feet long enough to spot the blatant absurdity wherein setting up surveillance of someone isn't a violation of privacy but telling them they're being recorded is, because really, how nuts do you have to be for that to make sense?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 8:14am

      Re: Gotta love the classics

      lawyers will always stretch arguments. problem is with the judge.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 28 Jan 2017 @ 4:06pm

      Re: Gotta love the classics

      I don't think this is a case of "your privacy isn't violated unless you know you're being watched".

      I think the logic here is that knowing where the cameras are will reveal who the FBI is looking at, that this in turn will reveal that the FBI thinks those people did something worth looking at, and that that revelation - in the absence of enough evidence to bring charges, and especially for people who didn't actually do it after all - is a violation of those people's privacy.

      So by keeping the locations of the cameras the FBI is using to watch these people secret, the FBI is protecting these people from the public opprobrium which would come from its being known that the FBI suspects them of something.

      ...or something like that. The logic is twisted, but _might_ be considered internally sound.

      (It doesn't make the FBI's own surveillance any less of a privacy violation, but this case wasn't about stopping that anyway - so the comparison is between privacy violation by both the FBI and the public, vs. privacy violation by only the FBI.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Jon M. Kelley, 29 Jan 2017 @ 8:35pm

      Re: Gotta love the classics

      New or wealthy neighborhoods don't have utility poles! It is all underground - no cameras. Only old / poorer neighborhoods have poles to put cameras on.

      So the activities of the rich & famous are still safe from random collection.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 3:32am

    Because terrorism...

    the leading answer to why we no longer have an expectations of rights.

    Also, does anyone expect to see the telcos launching a lawsuit to stop the FBI from touching the poles? Google might go to court and ask why the FBI can but they can't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Arbus, 26 Jan 2017 @ 6:29am

      Re: Because terrorism...

      -

      Yup, terrorists hate us because of our liberty & sacred Bill-of-Rights --- therefore the FBI & federal courts must destroy our American rights... in order to save them (??)

      Reminds me of the famous old US Army quote from the Vietnam War:

      "We had to destroy that village, in order to save it
      from the enemy"

      ____

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 3:33am

    Ho did

    their one-touch-make-ready contractor get instant approval?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 26 Jan 2017 @ 3:55am

    In other words

    The FBI requests the public to crowdsource a searchable database of all publicly visible CCTV cameras in Seattle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    pricks, 26 Jan 2017 @ 4:57am

    arseholes inc

    time to take this all the way to the supreme court and then if no use take it to guns and rocks and cunt fucking the cunts up the cunt. the cunts

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 5:55am

    Sounds like a bought and paid for judge.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 7:23am

      Re:

      Not necessarily, though the alternative isn't any better, and in fact could be seen as worse.

      Far too many, both in the legal system and general populous are under the mistaken impression that those in positions of authority are trustworthy simply because of their position. They're the Good Guys, and as such if something is preventing them from 'doing their jobs' then clearly the problem is the rules, not the Good Guys!

      If they say that someone is guilty and the rules don't apply, then clearly they know best, and the rules can be... bent a little. Or a lot. Or ignored completely, because you can't let the Bad Guys win or hide behind the laws that are only intended to protect the Good Guys after all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sok Puppette, 26 Jan 2017 @ 6:38am

    Lesson learned

    Next time, don't tell the FBI before you disclose. That was really dumb.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Phil Mocek (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 2:51pm

      Re: Lesson learned

      Consider the possibility that the utility would prefer not to communicate these public records to the public. Providing third-party notification and waiting six months so that the party can file for an injunction is an effective means to achieving such.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 6:40am

    Unless some of these cameras are located in sparsely-populated areas of the city, it's highly unlikely anyone could work their way backward from the camera's location to determine the identity of the surveillance targets.

    Well....yes and no. It's highly unlikely that an average (or extremely above average) citizen would be able to identify the targets. It's somewhat more likely that the target of the surveillance knows that they do illegal things that are of interest to the FBI, and would find it rather telling that cameras were installed near their house and place of work. I'd say it's not unlikely that at least one person could back out the identity of the target, even if there are likely many false positives.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 7:10am

      Re:

      " It's somewhat more likely that the target of the surveillance knows that they do illegal things that are of interest to the FBI"

      and the list of "illegal things" grows at an exponential rate while the list of people to watch now includes everyone.

      The thought police are looking for ways to monetize their victims.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DC Pathogen, 26 Jan 2017 @ 6:58am

    One of those secret FBI surveillance cameras must have recorded the judge and now the FBI has something on him too.

    I'm sure a prevalent Seattle based white hat group could expose the camera locations (wink, wink, nod).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    timmaguire42 (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 7:22am

    I wonder if they could, as some internet companies do in response to secret user information requests, release information on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 7:26am

      Re:

      "Poles 1-34 do not have FBI recording devices attached to them. Poles 36-48 do not have FBI recording devices attached to them. Poles 50-121 do not..."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Phil Mocek (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 11:28am

      Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

      Hi. Co-subject of the article, here.

      Seattle City Light's current position is that they do not track what is on their poles, so, as reported by their representative Jim Baggs at a Tuesday city council meeting, he "To his knowledge, there are no cameras in place on City Light poles at this point in time." (at 54m30s in the video archive). As they later confirmed, they are unaware of any cameras because they no longer track what the feds are doing on their poles.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 12:37pm

        Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

        Bull shit. Impossible Dpw workers allow extra unknown wires in electrical boxes. Not to mention necessity to have police redirecting trafic during installation above street.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Phil Mocek (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 2:31pm

          Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

          At 1h25m05s in that same video:

          Phil Mocek (Seattle Privacy Coalition): I'm curious if we're-- Is the idea of regulating who can crawl up onto a City-Light-owned pole and wire into it off the table? It seems odd to me that City Light would allow someone from an outside agency to go up there and hook into their--

          Kshama Sawant (City Council): I was wondering the same thing. What if I set up a camera? What would City Light do?

          Deborah Juarez (City Council): I'll help you. (laughter)

          Mocek: It would seem to present a danger to pole workers, also.

          Jim Baggs (City Light): Our-- Again, this analysis was done some time ago, but the primary concern from City Light's perspective is the safety concern. You're in an area where it's dangerous and only qualified workers should be in that area doing any kind of work on electrical facilities. My understanding is--this predates me, but if you go back several years to when City Light first became aware or somehow got involved in allowing federal agencies--FBI, ATF, whoever--to install these cameras, perhaps on City Light poles, that there was an evaluation of the qualified nature of the people and the workers that would be doing these installations, and that at that time, the utility was convinced to its satisfaction that anyone who would be doing this work would be completely qualified in doing the work. [...] And we were satisfied at the time that he safety considerations would be met, and have since allowed the practice until, as I said, more recently here a year or two ago, when we made the determination that even involvement really at all of either keeping records or tracking or giving permission was not really utility function, it was really more of a law enforcement function and to the degree to which it was either made sense or it was okay or not okay was something that we wanted to back away from.

          David Robinson (Seattle Privacy Coalition): Does that mean that the ATF or whoever had their own bucket trucks and their own linemen, and their own fake Seattle City Light decals on the trucks?

          Baggs: I don't believe they had any fake City Light decals, but yes, they have their own equipment and people.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 26 Jan 2017 @ 4:12pm

            Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

            Lovely. "We don't know what's going on with our poles because we don't want to know."

            Willful ignorance like that sounds like a good reason to give them the boot and replace them with someone that actually cares who does what with the poles.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 4:19pm

              Re: Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

              Personally I always verify who is doing work on my pole.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 5:03pm

            Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

            Bull shit response of Jim baggs. You have to have local police to redirect the traffic to begin with. That leaves record.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 5:15pm

              Re: Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

              Look at video. Baggs is a liar. I would fire him on the spot by putting lives of workers at risk (unknown/unapproved wires).

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 6:05pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: could SCL release info on which poles do not have FBI piggybacking?

                His body language is exactly like James clapper's saying in congress that they do not spy on citizens 1:25 mark

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 7:53am

    can reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those persons under investigation who have not yet been charged.

    So does it become an invasion or privacy when the footage is used in court? What I would like to know is how often they use a 'confidential informant' to gain a warrant, so that they do not have to reveal their spying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2017 @ 8:24am

    For every real surveillance camera,

    there are maybe 10 fake surveillance cameras, which are plastic shells connected to nothing.

    Good luck distinguishing which is which

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Feb 2017 @ 4:14am

    Simply if you don't do anything to hide, why you care them watching the environment for possible threats.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Phil Mocek (profile), 2 Feb 2017 @ 7:40am

      Re: nothing to hide

      Whether I have or have not anything to hide is not relevant in this situation (though I do agree that we should all have something to hide).

      That I set foot outside my home does not indicate consent to tracking of my movements, words, and associations by our government. That I am or anyone else is in public is not justification for performing surveillance of us. This does not indicate that we are hiding nefarious activity that we wish to hide.

      I want local control over surveillance equipment installed and used on our public streets. I want courts to approve surveillance, for minimization procedures to be followed so that information is not collected individuals who are not the specific targets of surveillance, and if it is collected incidental to targeted surveillance, I want it purged. I want equipment removed after the conclusion of an investigation, and I want public notice of what surveillance was performed after the risk of jeopardizing an investigation passes. I do not want data collected by such equipment to be slurped up into NSA’s Utah Data Center. I want any material support provided by municipal government to outside agencies’ for their surveillance programs to be budgeted and accounted for. I want us to provide informed consent for any public surveillance performed in Seattle.

      I would not accept a system whereby I was required to notify the federal government of my whereabouts, and I will not accept the federal government installing cameras to monitor the whereabouts of people going about their lawful business. If federal agencies are using the surveillance systems they have forced unto infrastructure owned by City of Seattle for targeted surveillance, then there should be no opposition to warrants, minimization procedures, sunset clauses, and public notification after the fact.

      None of these desires indicates that I have anything more to hide than anyone else does.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Phil Mocek (profile), 2 Feb 2017 @ 7:40am

      Re: nothing to hide

      Whether I have or have not anything to hide is not relevant in this situation (though I do agree that we should all have something to hide).

      That I set foot outside my home does not indicate consent to tracking of my movements, words, and associations by our government. That I am or anyone else is in public is not justification for performing surveillance of us. This does not indicate that we are hiding nefarious activity that we wish to hide.

      I want local control over surveillance equipment installed and used on our public streets. I want courts to approve surveillance, for minimization procedures to be followed so that information is not collected individuals who are not the specific targets of surveillance, and if it is collected incidental to targeted surveillance, I want it purged. I want equipment removed after the conclusion of an investigation, and I want public notice of what surveillance was performed after the risk of jeopardizing an investigation passes. I do not want data collected by such equipment to be slurped up into NSA’s Utah Data Center. I want any material support provided by municipal government to outside agencies’ for their surveillance programs to be budgeted and accounted for. I want us to provide informed consent for any public surveillance performed in Seattle.

      I would not accept a system whereby I was required to notify the federal government of my whereabouts, and I will not accept the federal government installing cameras to monitor the whereabouts of people going about their lawful business. If federal agencies are using the surveillance systems they have forced unto infrastructure owned by City of Seattle for targeted surveillance, then there should be no opposition to warrants, minimization procedures, sunset clauses, and public notification after the fact.

      None of these desires indicates that I have anything more to hide than anyone else does.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    biorpg (profile), 4 Feb 2017 @ 5:22pm

    The City of Seattle, including any officers, agents and employees thereof, are hereby permanently enjoined from disclosing, in response to any request under the Washington PRA, or otherwise, the… information that it has received from the FBI, absent the express authorization to do so by the FBI…

    Doesn't this put the voluntary, unsolicited disclosure of the information outside the scope of the ruling?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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