Say Hello to the New Seattle Surveillance Grid

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“This is for your protection.”

Surveillance GridThese are words often parroted by government officials, who feel it necessary to impose far-reaching security measures over the citizens they serve. While it is highly necessary to establish law and order to ensure that criminality does not prosper, there are times when these institutions attempt to setup game-changing structures that force the public into a conundrum as old as the hills: “Do we give up liberty for security?” The city of Seattle, Washington must now decide their answer to this question.

System’s Capabilities Raise a Few Eyebrows

In a Nov. 6 feature report in The Stranger from Matt Fiske-Verkerk and Brendan Kiley, they discuss how the SPD has worked with Aruba Networks to setup a citywide system, which can track millions of smartphones in realtime surveillance. While the SPD apparently refused to answer dozens of questions, they were able to find out the capabilities of the system – capabilities that appear to be raising Verkerk and Kiley’s eyebrows:

“How accurately can it geo-locate and track the movements of your phone, laptop, or any other wireless device by its MAC address (its “media access control address”—nothing to do with Macintosh—which is analogous to a device’s thumbprint)? Can the network send that information to a database, allowing the SPD to reconstruct who was where at any given time, on any given day, without a warrant? Can the network see you now?”

However, it is worth mentioning that the government already has the capability to track cell phones down to just a few feet. This has been known for quite some time, even before Edward Snowden opened up the dam of classified NSA information to the public. While this massive mesh of wifi tracker boxes in Seattle does pose a rather large controversy over 4th Amendment concerns, it’s certainly not the only way that government can track its citizens. Law enforcement can get plenty of information according to the ACLU:

“As a result, government officials can learn a tremendous amount of detailed personal information about you by accessing your location history from your cell phone company, ranging from which friends you’re seeing to where you go to the doctor to how often you go to church. Law enforcement can get months’ worth of this information, without you ever knowing – and often without a warrant from a judge.”

Surveillance GridThe article details that the government already does this through mobile carriers. Tracking realtime locations of cell phones is, simply, not new. If the issue of tracking locations, based on the device’s MAC address, is what has Seattle up in arms then the entire population of the US should have felt the same way a long time ago.

Preventing Disasters

Verkerk and Kiley also say that they were able to get a comment from a detective of SPD, who was curiously reluctant to discuss any particulars. And according to one of the most common reasons given for installing such a comprehensive surveillance system is to stave off disasters, like the Boston bombing:


“Council member Bruce Harrell pointed out the need for SPD to be able to collect some of this information. “While I understand that a lot of people have concerns about the government having access to this information, when we have large public gatherings like the situation like in Boston and something bad happens, the first thing we want to know is how are we using technology to capture that information,” said Harrell.

Knowing that an act of terrorism would warrant the federal government’s involvement and knowing that the federal government already has the capability to track cell phones, it is not certain that this type of network would even have prevented the bombing or caught the bombers any faster.

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