Seattle's Plan to Track Everybody's Cellphones and Laptops Was Too Creepy Even For Its Cops

PHOTO: street surveillance

Flickr Commons/Stilgherrian

The Seattle Police Department is halting plans to track the movements of city residents using their smartphones, tablets and computers after the local alt-weekly paper raised privacy concerns over the project.

At issue was the PD's new "wireless mesh network," a city-wide system of wi-fi hubs that was theoretically capable of tracking anyone's movements through their phone, laptop, or other wireless device. After The Stranger started asking questions about the system in a long investigative article this week, titled "You Are a Rogue Device," law enforcement announced they would shut it down until there was a "vigorous public debate" over its use and potential abuse.

The network was developed by a California company "whose clients include the Department of Defense, school districts in Canada, oil-mining interests in China, and telecommunications companies in Saudi Arabia," according to the Stranger. (Yep, nothing sketchy about telecom firms in Saudi Arabia!) It turns out that the Seattle Police Department built the network with a special grant from the US Department of Homeland Security.

That's nothing new, sadly -- it's what happens when local law enforcement officials get fat checks from the Department of Homeland Security and have to find fancy surveillance gadgets and SWAT swag to spend 'em on because TERRORISM. The current trend is a budget in search of a justification, a "We Bought This Stuff For Watching You… Not That We Would, But We Could" mentality.

To its credit, the Seattle PD - whose chillaxed, pro-weed Twitter feed is the stuff of legends - responded to concerns over the project and pulled the plug. "The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there's an opportunity for vigorous public debate," a PD spokesman told the Stranger.

But would your local police department do the same thing, if they had all that free money to buy some dope Big Brother gadgets? It's probably worth asking them.

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