Seattle Police Department's New Wireless Mesh Network

If you’re walking around downtown Seattle, look up: You’ll see off-white boxes, each one about a foot tall with vertical antennae, attached to utility poles. If you’re walking around downtown while looking at a smartphone, you will probably see at least one—and more likely two or three—Wi-Fi networks named after intersections: “4th&Seneca,” “4th&Union,” “4th&University,” and so on. That is how you can see the Seattle Police Department’s new wireless mesh network, bought from a California-based company called Aruba Networks, whose clients include the Department of Defense, school districts in Canada, oil-mining interests in China, and telecommunications companies in Saudi Arabia.
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?
The SPD declined to answer more than a dozen questions from The Stranger, including whether the network is operational, who has access to its data, what it might be used for, and whether the SPD has used it (or intends to use it) to geo-locate people’s devices via their MAC addresses or other identifiers.
Seattle Police detective Monty Moss, one of the leaders of the mesh-network project—one part of a $2.7 million effort, paid for by the Department of Homeland Security—wrote in an e-mail that the department “is not comfortable answering policy questions when we do not yet have a policy.” But, Detective Moss added, the SPD “is actively collaborating with the mayor’s office, city council, law department, and the ACLU on a use policy.” The ACLU, at least, begs to differ: “Actively collaborating” is not how they would put it. Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director of the Seattle office, says the ACLU submitted policy-use suggestions months ago and has been waiting for a response.
Detective Moss also added that the mesh network would not be used for “surveillance purposes… without City Council’s approval and the appropriate court authorization.” Note that he didn’t say the mesh network couldn’t be used for the surveillance functions we asked about, only that it wouldn’t—at least until certain people in power say it can. That’s the equivalent of a “trust us” and a handshake.
His answer is inadequate for other reasons as well. First, the city council passed an ordinance earlier this year stating that any potential surveillance equipment must submit protocols to the city council for public review and approval within 30 days of its acquisition and implementation. This mesh network has been around longer than that, as confirmed by Cascade Networks, Inc., which helped install it. Still, the SPD says it doesn’t have a policy for its use yet. Mayor McGinn’s office says it expects to see draft protocols sometime in December—nearly nine months late, according to the new ordinance.
Second, and more importantly, this mesh network is part of a whole new arsenal of surveillance technologies that are moving faster than the laws that govern them are being written. As Stephanie K. Pell (former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee) and Christopher Soghoian (senior policy analyst at the ACLU) wrote in a 2012 essay for the Berkeley Technology Law Journal:
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