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Seattle City councilmember wants federal surveillance cameras removed

SEATTLE - A Seattle City councilmember is fighting to have surveillance cameras monitored by the federal government removed.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant said the cameras are positioned on Seattle City Light poles, but she isn’t sure what, or who, they’re monitoring.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones barred the City of Seattle from releasing information about the cameras to the media or to a privacy advocate. Seattle had planned to release details to both parties as part of a public records request.

In June, the federal government sued the city and City Light in an effort to block the records release. According to the lawsuit, “sensitive” and “confidential” FBI information could be compromised. The suit said the cameras are associated with specific investigations.

“We don’t know what those cameras are doing. We don’t know where they exist. We don’t know who they’re collecting information about.” Sawant said.

Sawant invited the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Phil Mocek, the privacy advocate who attempted to get the records, to speak at the council’s Energy and Environment Committee meeting on Tuesday.

“Such unaccounted for, warrantless cameras that are spying on people are of concern in general. That should be very clear,” Sawant said. “But I think that concern is heightened in the light of Trump being in the White House.”

Sawant has not introduced any legislation forbidding the cameras from being in the city, but she said she wants the cameras removed.

During the committee hearing, Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington, said the cameras are likely recording people not suspected of wrongdoing.

“The danger is that these surveillance cameras not only have the potential to surveil the targets of that investigation, but thousands of people not suspects of crimes,” Narayan said.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday. A Seattle City Light official said during the committee meeting that the feds don’t tell them when they’re installing the cameras, nor do they have any say in whether the devices are attached to utility poles.

Phil Mocek, the privacy advocate who sought disclosure of the camera footage, told the committee that he has a reasonable expectation to privacy.

“It’s reasonable for me to expect that I can walk down the street with a friend, having a quiet conversation, and there’s not a microphone mounted on the roof recording us,” Mocek said.

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