Controversial surveillance program continues to raise eyebrows

Controversial surveillance program continues to raise eyebrows
SEATTLE -- Seattle police call it a tool against terrorism, but critics are worried that a proposed network of surveillance cameras could be turned against citizens.

A lot of residents say they had no idea a high-tech surveillance system was in the works until they came to Alki Point and saw the cameras mounted above them.

The cameras are meant to watch for terrorists and other criminals, but neighbors want to be sure the lens isn't also pointed at their homes.

Seattle police hope something called masking technology, which would limit the view of the cameras, will ease the privacy concerns.

"Within the cameras field of view, I will draw a box over what is private," said Monty Moss of the Seattle Police Department. "We're going to mask those areas off right away."

Police showed off the system as part of a proposed 30-camera network set up to scan the waterways and keep the Port of Seattle safe from terrorists. But the public isn't sure.

"The government doesn't have the right to surveil us 24/7," one resident said during Wednesday's meeting.

Thirteen cameras have already been installed, and six of them are positioned around Alki.

"What bothers everybody in the community, bar none, is that this was never brought to our attention. We never had a discussion about this," said resident Will Washington.

Council members approved the surveillance system last year with little discussion, but now that the system's full capabilities are clear, they have plenty of questions.

"This is not a 20 question game. It's not, 'Did you ask the right question or ask in the right way'" said Councilman Bruce Harrell. "The police department and the mayor, they have to be forthright with that information."

The cameras will be tied into a wireless mesh network that will give officers in patrol cars the ability to tap into live pictures in case they need to monitor a threat.

Harrell said even though he initially approved the system, he's now working on guidelines to safeguard privacy concerns and limit the use of the new technology.

"We already know people do not like cameras on their homes and so that's a no-brainer," he said. "So, again, we have to be transparent in this process."

The system is not operational yet, but police do have to finish installing the cameras by March 31 or they risk losing the federal grant that's paying for the devices.