The Seattle Police Department purchased a network in February to be used by emergency responders, though it is also capable of tracking devices with Wi-Fi enabled, revealing past location data and more.
Tracking smartphones with Wi-Fi enabled has become somewhat common. One company tracked pedestrians around London via high-tech trashcans and the practice of tracking shoppers via Wi-Fi is now widespread.
However, the “mesh network” purchased by Seattle police goes beyond just tracking location. It can find what applications have been downloaded, what type of device it is, the device’s IP address and both current and past locations of the device.
The network, which police point out has not been turned on yet, can capture the information about the past 1,000 times a device attempted to connect to a Wi-Fi signal, according to Raw Story.
“They now own a piece of equipment that has tracking capabilities so we think that they should be going to City Council and presenting a protocol for the whole network that says they won’t be using it for surveillance purposes,” Jamela Debelak of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said to KIRO. Currently, a draft policy for the use of the network is being reviewed by the Seattle city attorney’s office that will eventually make its way to the city council. There is currently no timeline for the review.
While the Seattle Police Department maintains that the network is not being used, KIRO notes that “the network appears to be online,” something which the department could not explain. The mesh network is comprised of 160 wireless access point mounted on poles around Seattle. Every time a device’s Wi-Fi antennae searches for a Wi-Fi signal and one of the access points recognizes it, the system can store that data. The network was purchased with a $2.6 million Department of Homeland Security grant.
“Once these kinds of tools are in place, they don’t go away,” Brendan Kiley of The Stranger said to KIRO. “Even if we assume that the mesh network was installed by good people for good reasons, there’s no reason to believe that the people controlling the network in the future will use it for the public good.”
Kiley called for a serious public conversation about the network, along with clear rules about how the technology can be used. Earlier this year, it was noted that the Seattle Police Department was establishing a large network of surveillance cameras around the city. “We believe that people should be free to move about without having the government track their movements unless there really is reason to believe they’re engaged in some criminal activity,” Debelak said.
However, city council member Bruce Harrell said that it is necessary for the police department to collect some of the information. Harrell said that if something like the Boston bombing were to occur, the police would want to capture information about the people that were there. He also said that the department has to go to the public before they hit the “on” button.
Yet KIRO noted that the “network shows up online in public places usually as intersections in the city such as, ‘4th&Pike,’ ‘4th&University’ and ‘3rd&Union.’”
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This article first appeared at End the Lie.