Seattle’s police department has been forced to beat at least a temporary retreat, turning off a wireless mesh network that had been funded as part of a $2.6 million Department of Homeland Security grant. This network, the department insisted, wasn’t operational — rather, it had merely been left on after a round of preliminary testing.
Word of Seattle’s mesh network had been floating around for some time, and the routing boxes and attached cameras were visible on city streets. The debate reached a fever pitch when The Stranger, a local alternative weekly, put more than a dozen questions to the police department on topics like, "Does the department use, or plan to use, the capability of the mesh network to geo-locate wireless devices (cell phones, laptops, anything with a MAC address)?" At the time, the police were unwilling or unable to answer them.
Mesh networks as a technology, it’s worth noting, have a lot going for them. In critical situations, non-local networks tend to go down. We saw that during 9/11, when first responders weren’t able to effectively use radio frequencies, a communications failing that the 9/11 Commission said hindered rescue efforts. Mesh networks are flexible and self-healing, making use of whatever connections and devices are available at the time.
The upsides of mesh as a network topography explain why they have popped up all over. Among others, there’s the Kansas City Freedom Network, the Red Hook WiFi in Brooklyn and Berlin’s Freifunk network.
According to the Seattle City Council, the attendant public safety benefits were what convinced the city to bring in mesh:
The wireless mesh network will allow police and fire emergency vehicles to connect to their computer aided dispatch systems, specialized equipment such as LikePak cardiac treatment devices to be seen live at a hospital, and voice-over-IP programs to function independent of commercial cellular carriers. This network will give city agencies a redundant way to communicate that does not exist today.
But why the cameras? Along with 158 wireless access points along the network, Seattle had also planned on installing 30 cameras. The goal was clearly surveillance, and not all of it was surreptitious — the council even entertained the idea of streaming some footage online, noting, "Seattle Police is confident that this idea will be supported."
There are, though, several factors at work that doomed Seattle’s mesh network, at least for the short term.
In the era of National Security Agency revelations, the public has less of an appetite for the idea that ‘security’ is some broad, amorphous notion that covers everything from firefighter radios to passive cell phone tracking. And people are waking up to the idea that when technology gets ahead of policy, bad things can happen.
Which is why one of The Stranger’s strongest arguments is actually a dry, boring, administrative one: That the Seattle Police Department has failed to follow even the rules that do exist to govern surveillance tech. Here are Stranger reporters Matt Fikse-Verkerk and Brendan Kiley:
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.
That seems like the real takeaway from what happened in Seattle: Advocating for new technology is one thing, but rolling it out into widespread use without robust public discussion is pretty tactless.
This isn’t exactly an unprecedented conversation. Way back in 1999, the local ACLU office objected to the Seattle Police Department for embedding with a gaggle of news crews and videotaping a news conference held by community groups without announcing itself.
In that case, the department’s chief apologized, saying, "In retrospect, we should have introduced ourselves, clearly marked our video camera with ‘SPD.’" The technology has grown far more complicated in the intervening decade and a half, but some of the solutions remain the same. One proposal for making the mesh network more palatable is clearly labeling network access points, now called things like "4th&Union," as the property of Seattle police.
In this case, the police department has agreed to deactivate the wireless mesh network "until the city council approves a draft policy and until there’s an opportunity for vigorous public debate."
Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.