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.

Filed Under: fbi, phil mocek, public records, seattle, secrecy, surveillance, utility poles

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  1. 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.

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