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Seattle police disable wireless mesh network over surveillance worries

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The Seattle Police Department, facing heavy blowback over a citywide wireless mesh network purchased from California venor Aruba Networks as part of a $2.7 million Department of Homeland Security project, has moved to at least temporarily shut down the system, with SPD Chief Jim Pugel issuing a direct order to that effect.

Local alt-weekly The Stranger had reported on the mesh network—noticeable in the form of small whitish boxes affixed to utility poles—a week prior, noting that authorities were quite reluctant to answer questions about the reasoning behind the initiative or its possible surveillance applications. While the official line was that the network would help emergency responders communicate more efficiently (particularly in a disaster scenario where parallel infrastructure is overloaded), speculation held that it might also be used to geolocate residents’ phones via their unique media access control (MAC) addresses and track their every move.

The idea of  a “historical digital map” that could be shared with federal intelligence agencies caused locals to take notice.

The real reason the SPD couldn’t provide some answers to dampen people's paranoia was even more alarming: In an email to The Stranger, Detective Monty Moss, who is intimately involved in the project, put it succinctly: The department “is not comfortable answering policy questions when we do not yet have a policy.” In other words, this sort of technology is outstripping our ability to legislate its real-world impact. Moss added that the network would certainly not be used for surveillance “without City Council's approval and the appropriate court authorization.”

Nevertheless, in a fit of common sense, the SPD acknowledged yesterday that they had to backtrack and have the discussion and close review that should have occurred before installation began. “The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there's an opportunity for vigorous public debate," said spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, who also remarked that such technology must come with safeguards “so people with legitimate privacy concerns aren't worried about how it's being used.” 

Whitcomb told The Stranger that shutting down the access points would involve "more than just flipping a switch." As of Wednesday afternoon, some of the devices were still broadcasting in Downtown Seattle.

H/T The Stranger