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Seattle Powers Down Police Wi-Fi Network, Making Room for Public Debate

Seattle police have pledged to temporarily disable a new downtown Wi-Fi network with powerful surveillance capabilities. Rather than providing Internet connectivity to residents, this Wi-Fi network is designed to help law enforcement communicate — but it can also track the real-time movements of residents’ smartphones. The network was built by a contractor called Aruba, who advertises the system’s ability to track device locations (even when devices don’t try to join the network). Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the new system was initially approved by the city council without public debate. The city’s change of course came after a news report raised public concern.

The network consists of boxes on utility poles, each of which broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal named for its intersection (e.g., “4th&University”). The boxes collaborate to form a robust communications system for city police, streaming video from surveillance cameras and squad car dash-cams.

However, the network can also track individuals’ devices throughout the area. Whenever a smartphone searches for nearby Wi-Fi networks (which many do constantly), it sends out a unique identifier. By tracking which boxes are nearest to the phone’s unique signal, the city’s network can track the device’s location over time. The network can also store extensive location histories.

These capabilities — and a lack of awareness about them — have civil rights advocates concerned. “We definitely feel like the public doesn’t have a handle on what the capabilities are,” said Jamela Debelak of the ACLU. “We’re not even sure the police department does.” When asked for details on the network, the Seattle Police Department replied that it was “not comfortable answering policy questions when we do not yet have a policy.”

Under pressure, the city backed down. “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 a police spokesperson.

The story joins earlier examples of federal funds fueling technological upgrades at a local level, with deployment rushed ahead of public understanding or clear rules of the road. Seattle itself gave another example earlier this year, when the police department retreated from a hasty plan to deploy aerial surveillance drones.

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