Category: Privacy

2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of the people who were suddenly kicked out of an Aurora Avenue motel by the city, a proposal to keep track homeless system clients using fingerprints or digital IDs, or the detective who had the city’s Navigation Team haul away her personal trash, read on.

The Everspring Inn Eviction

One of the saddest and most complex stories we covered this year was a sudden mass eviction at the Everspring Inn on Aurora Ave. N—a semi-derelict motel that was home to dozens of people who were already living on the margins when the pandemic hit. The ouster was unusual among COVID-era evictions because it was instigated not by the landlord, but by the city—specifically, the Seattle Police Department, which declared the property a “chronic nuisance” after two shootings, multiple reported rapes, and ongoing drug activity.

In the days after the eviction notices (which said they had to leave “immediately,” almost certainly in violation of landlord-tenant law), tenants reported that security guards hired by the motel’s owner, Ryan Kang, had boarded up their doors and windows, locked them out of the property, and offered them as little as $100 to leave. Not all of the tenants did, and they said Kang cut off their hot water and towed their cars in retaliation.

Perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

Since then, most of the tenants have been moved temporarily to another hotel with the help of the Public Defender Association, whose LEAD and Co-LEAD programs help people engaged in low-level and subsistence crimes such as drug dealing and sex work. Although it took a while, the city of Seattle eventually gave the PDA authorization to use money left over from its 2020 contract to move the Everspring residents to another hotel and released funding so that they could enroll many ofthe residents in the LEAD program. (SPD, which was aware that many of the tenants were engaged in low-level criminal activity, had the authority to refer them to LEAD all along, but did not do so.)

It’s a common misconception that people experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness, all require expensive interventions such as permanent supportive housing, mental health treatment, or jail if they’re engaged in low-level criminal activity. In reality, many just need a place to live that they can afford with a little financial help. However, precisely because they are not disabled, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or unable to work, people in this category are generally last to receive subsidies through rapid rehousing programs, which prioritize clients with more barriers to housing, not those who can almost pay for housing on their own.

The former Everspring tenants typify a group of homeless or marginally housed people who work in the illegal economy because they can’t find legal jobs that pay enough to cover rent, Daugaard says. They’re “high-functioning but economically insecure, and many have had no alternative to the illicit economy.”

The PDA has paid for the former Everspring residents to stay in a hotel for the next several months. By pre-paying for hotel rooms, rather than providing short-term rent subsidies for “permanent” housing, LEAD ensures that its clients remain eligible for other housing subsidies and assistance that’s only available to people who are “literally homeless”; perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

But funding for the PDA’s other hotel-based programs, including Co-LEAD and JustCare, which uses federal relief dollars to move people directly from encampments (like the ones near the downtown King County Courthouse) to hotels, is running out. If the city (or county) doesn’t come up with a new funding source for these hotel-based shelters, many will have to close at the end of January. 

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Digital IDs for people experiencing homelessness

Back in 2019, PubliCola reported exclusively, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the Human Services Department to study biometric tracking of the city’s homeless population, using fingerprints or other unique identifiers. The idea was to create “efficiencies” in the homelessness system by making it easier for service providers (and clients themselves) to keep track of clients’ personal records, such as medical documents, IDs, and the services they access across the homeless system. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents”

ACLU Calls on Durkan to Ban Facial Recognition Software After Possible SPD Violation

Clearview AI Software Logo (Source: Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, a blogger’s public records request turned up evidence that a Seattle Police Officer has used a widely-criticized facial recognition software called Clearview AI for over a year, possibly violating Seattle Police Department policy and raising questions from privacy advocates about the use of prohibited surveillance technology within SPD.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Washington responded to the revelation by calling for Mayor Jenny Durkan to issue a specific ban on the use of facial recognition software by city agencies, as well as for a city council hearing to question SPD representatives about their use of surveillance tools.

As PubliCola first reported in November, the ACLU first sounded the alarm after the department released roughly 200 emails containing references to Clearview AI, a search engine for faces that enables law enforcement agencies to identify unknown people—protest participants, for example—by matching their photos to online images, allowing police to arrest or interrogate them.

Clearview AI has been the subject of harsh condemnation from privacy and police accountability advocates since it first drew national attention last year. The company’s business model relies on scraping billions of images from across the internet without permission; as a result, Clearview AI’s database of faces includes untold numbers of people with no criminal background whatsoever.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Most of the emails SPD released were promotional offers sent from Clearview AI to SPD officers of all ranks, including former Police Chief Carmen Best. But one officer—Detective Nicholas Kartes of the South Precinct’s burglary unit—accepted the company’s offer, opening an account with his work email in September 2019. In the past year, Kartes corresponded with a Clearview AI representative about his experiences “experimenting” with the application, and login alerts sent to Kartes’ work email indicated that the account was used on at least two desktop computers. Both computers’ IP addresses place them in Seattle city government buildings, and one IP address belongs to a secure city network.

The revelation was alarming enough to prompt Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg to launch an investigation into Kartes’ use of Clearview AI. However, Myerberg told PubliCola in November that merely opening an account with Clearview AI might not constitute a policy violation, though using the account for law enforcement purposes would be a clear violation of department policy. He added that there is no precedent for that kind of misconduct.

But the city council’s 2018 surveillance ordinance that restricts SPD’s use of surveillance technologies might not cover Kartes’ use of an unapproved software. Mary Dory, a public safety auditor working with the Office of the Inspector General on the case, told PubliCola in November that the ordinance was designed to address the use of surveillance technologies by SPD itself, not the behavior of an individual officer using surveillance software without the department’s knowledge.

That dilemma is now at the center of the ACLU’s disagreement with Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz. Jennifer Lee, the manager of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, told PubliCola that her organization sees Kartes’ use of Clearview AI as a violation of the surveillance ordinance, and believes that SPD is liable for Kartes’ infractions. She cited Kartes’ use of his work email—and, possibly, his work computer—as evidence that the detective opened a Clearview AI account for law enforcement purposes.

Lee says that the ACLU of Washington is calling for Durkan to issue a targeted ban on facial recognition technology. “We have a surveillance ordinance which is supposed to prevent exactly what happened: SPD secretly using a surveillance technology,” she told PubliCola. “But it’s clear that without an explicit prohibition on facial recognition use, there are risks that remain.”

A press release from the ACLU sent out on Wednesday morning also called for council members Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen, the chairs of the council’s public safety and transportation and public utilities committees, respectively, to hold a public hearing to “get answers from SPD about its use of Clearview AI and other surveillance tools.”

In a response sent to the ACLU of Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Diaz categorically denied that SPD has sanctioned the use of Clearview AI by its officers. “We have no intention or interest in pursuing a partnership with Clearview AI or acquiring the use of any facial recognition technology,” he wrote. He also challenged the ACLU’s assertion—included in their press release—that multiple SPD detectives have used Clearview AI since September, pointing out that the emails only clearly point to Kartes’ use of the technology. (In November, Lee told PubliCola that the login alerts from multiple desktop computers point to the possibility of multiple detectives using Kartes’ account).

Diaz also made a passing reference connecting the Clearview AI promotional emails to a possible phishing attempt involving city of Seattle email addresses; PubliCola has reached out for clarification.

Because Diaz’s response dismisses the ACLU’s assertion that the department is liable for Kartes’ conduct, the ACLU’s call for Durkan to issue a specific ban on facial recognition software is effectively dead in the water.

SPD Detective’s Use of Prohibited Facial Recognition Software Raises Questions About Surveillance Oversight

Image by FlitsArt from Pixabay

By Paul Kiefer

Over the past year, more than a dozen Seattle Police Department officers have received promotional emails advertising a controversial artificial intelligence software called Clearview AI, which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces. Clearview enables law enforcement agencies to identify unknown people—protest participants, for example—by matching their photos to online images and arrest or interrogate them after the fact.

In March, one of the promotional emails made its way into then-Chief Carmen Best’s inbox, along with the inboxes of numerous other SPD officers of varying ranks. But only one officer—Detective Nicholas Kartes of the South Precinct’s burglary unit—appears to have taken the company’s offer, opening an account with his official Seattle email address more than a year ago.

Under most circumstances, an individual detective’s subscription to questionable surveillance software would go unnoticed. But Clearview AI is uniquely reviled by privacy advocates: its business model, which relies upon billions of images scraped without permission from every corner of the internet, has prompted horrified coverage from outlets as prominent as the New York Times. In fact, Kartes’ subscription to Clearview AI came to light because of an episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on the subject.

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The episode prompted Seattle-area blogger Bridget Brululo to submit a public records request to SPD in June to determine whether anyone with SPD is using the service. Earlier this month, the department fulfilled the request, providing Brululo a collection of roughly 200 emails to or from SPD officers mentioning Clearview AI. Most of the emails were promotional, but they also included evidence that Kartes has communicated with the software company and possibly used their service earlier this year.

Aside from the controversy that surrounds it, SPD officers aren’t currently allowed to use Clearview AI for law enforcement purposes. The surveillance ordinance passed by the city council in 2018 requires city departments to submit new surveillance technologies to a review process that ends with a council vote to approve or prohibit the technology’s use by city departments.

Clearview AI—which first attracted widespread attention late last year—is not on the council’s list of approved technologies. But according to Mary Dory, a public safety auditor currently working on the Kartes case with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), that ordinance doesn’t address the use of surveillance technology by individual officers. “If the department is caught using something outside the bounds of the ordinance, the city can take it away from them,” she said. “It isn’t focused on individual officers who have gone rogue or made a mistake.”

That leaves the city’s accountability partners responsible for investigating Kartes’ use of Clearview AI—namely, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the OIG—in an unfamiliar position. “We’ve seen instances in which officers just didn’t know that they were breaking the rules,” Dory said. “But that points to something systemic—why didn’t the department make sure their officers knew the rules? Or did the officer just ignore them?”

It’s also unclear whether Kartes violated department policy. To Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg, the revelation that an SPD detective is using Clearview AI was alarming enough to prompt his office to launch an investigation, but he told PubliCola that the act of creating an account itself might not constitute a policy violation. “If they used the account for an investigation,” he added, “that would be a clear violation of policy.”

Randall Huserik, a Public Information Officer for SPD, didn’t deny that Kartes used his Clearview AI account within the past year. However, he told PubliCola that the detective downloaded the application onto his personal phone to “experiment with its capacities—not in the course of his duties.” Continue reading “SPD Detective’s Use of Prohibited Facial Recognition Software Raises Questions About Surveillance Oversight”

Draft City Policy Would Restrict Personal Use of Social Media, Bar Public Employees From Discussing Anything “Not Already Considered Public”

A proposed new rule governing City of Seattle employees’ conduct on social media would place new restrictions on what employees are allowed to say online, and would include not just full-time workers but anyone who contracts, works part-time, volunteers, or takes an internship at the city. The social-media restrictions would cover everything from harassment, doxxing, and expressing racist sentiments online (all reasonable restrictions for public servants) to anything that “negatively impacts the City of Seattle’s ability to serve the public,” a phrase that is undefined in the legislation and that does not appear in the Seattle Municipal Code.

The rule, which is modeled on (but is much more extensive than) the Seattle Police Department’s Code of Conduct for social media, would also prohibit city workers, contractors, and volunteers from disclosing or even discussing any city information that is either “confidential” (defined as anything that would not be disclosed through a public records requests, including policy drafts like the one I am describing) or “any information that is not already considered public.” Here’s that paragraph in full:

Unless a City employee is an authorized public information officer, an employee whose primary responsibility at the City is to communicate directly to the public on behalf of their department, employees shall not post or otherwise disseminate any confidential information they have access to or have learned about as a result of their employment with the City of Seattle, or discuss any information that is not already considered public without the prior consent or authorization of City department communications.

This restriction, interpreted liberally, would effectively ban all city employees from talking to the media unless explicitly authorized by a city public information officer to do so. The city’s whistleblower code only prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about “waste[s] of public funds, unsafe practices and violations of law including violation of the City’s Ethics Code.”

Disclosing “confidential” information is already prohibited, although it happens routinely, especially in administrations that interpret public disclosure laws broadly—for example, by blacking out entire documents or simply refusing to provide them on the grounds that anything that isn’t already official policy or law is part of the city’s “deliberative process.”

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The ban on discussing anything that isn’t “already considered public” would be a broad expansion of this prohibition, effectively barring city employees from bringing forward concerns or information of public interest unless a department spokesperson answering to the mayor signs off on it in advance. Whistleblowers like the Seattle Silence Breakers, who brought forward stories about sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination within several city departments, might be less likely to come forward in the future if city policy explicitly bars them from discussing not just confidential information but any information that isn’t approved in advance by an official spokesperson for the city.

Shaun Van Eyk, the union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Union, Local 17, which represents many city employees, says the proposed rule as written is “pretty far afield from anything we would accept.” He says the city has been quietly working on the rule for more a year, but he just became aware of it in the past two months.

Anthony Derrick, a digital advisor for the mayor’s office, says it’s “very common” for cities to have social media policies, and provided links to the policies for South San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. None of these policies, however, included any details about city employees’ personal use of social media; rather, all three are about how city employees should operate the official social media accounts of city agencies.

Derrick did not respond directly to a question about what would constitute “any information that is not considered public,” and pointed to the whistleblower code and existing language barring the disclosure of confidential information in the city’s municipal code. “It goes without saying that anything we potentially implement in the future would not infringe upon employees’ freedom of speech or civil liberties,” he says.

The city had hoped to wrap up discussions about the policy with “representatives from nearly all departments” by the end of March, according to Derrick, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put those conversations on hold. 

Biometric Scans for Homeless Shelter Clients Out, Digital IDs In?

Visual representations of blockchain are hard, OK? At least it’s not an image of a Bitcoin. Photo via Pixabay

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office confirms that the city will not move forward with biometric scanning of homeless clients seeking shelter and services, after the Human Services Department recommended against the idea in an internal memo. Durkan first asked HSD to look at tracking homeless “customers” using their unique biometric markers, such as fingerprints, last year, as a way of creating “efficiencies” and eliminating the need for clients to keep track of personal documents or scan cards.

“Mayor Durkan believes that streamlining ways for our neighbors experiencing homelessness to securely maintain their personal documents needed to access services is one of the ways we can better serve this vulnerable population, so she asked HSD to evaluate ways to accomplish these goals,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says. “With her extensive background working on privacy and security issues, Mayor Durkan understands the need for deep collaboration before crafting policies that will impact communities.

With that decision made, Durkan’s office also released the full memo, which her office previously refused to provide in response to a records request I filed last year. The memo pushes back (gently) against the idea that biometrics are a superior alternative to scan cards—noting, for example, that people don’t actually lose scan cards nearly as often as the city assumed they would. “While there was concern that lost cards would be an issue, most programs have reported that it is not a significant barrier to utilizing the system and loss does not occur as often as anticipated,” the memo says.

More details that were not previously available:

Switching from scan cards to biometric scanners, such as fingerprint readers, would be expensive. According to the memo, “the cost to switch to biometric finger imaging would include upfront costs of about $100,000 for the server, about $2,000- $5,000 per shelter for hardware and an annual maintenance fee,” compared to the $84,500 it cost to set up the scan card system, plus about $1,200 in one-time costs borne by programs that use the scan cards.

“Conversion to biometrics would require a significant up-front cost as well as ongoing maintenance fees, while the scan card technology has already been paid for and the on-going costs are minimal,” the memo says.

Biometric technology requires partnering with private companies that may not always cooperate with the city’s demands. San Francisco, the memo says, is about to discontinue fingerprint scanning and end its partnership with a company called Bitfocus because of the company’s “refusal to adapt their [Homeless Management Information System] platform to interface with the scan technology. SF’s workaround was to link the finger imaging data to a separate data base, which is extremely cumbersome and prone to errors leading to minimal use of the technology in most programs,” the memo says. HMIS is the system the county uses to keep track of who clients are and which services they are using; one of the justifications for biometrics is that it helps cities eliminate problems with duplicate data.

Instead of biometrics, the city may consider non-biometric digital IDs, which allow homeless service providers to access all of a person’s documents at once using a password provided by the person.

An earlier memo on biometrics produced by HSD staff recommended that the city consider low-tech solutions such as expanding the amount of space available for check-in at shelters, remove or reduce ID requirements, and asking shelter workers and clients for their suggestions to improve the check-in process before.

Instead, the final memo recommends that the city look into other high-tech tracking solutions such as digital IDs secured with blockchain technology. The city of Austin, the memo notes, has been experimenting with digital IDs for homeless clients.

The final memo to the mayor’s office also omits some of the concerns included in the earlier memo, such as the fact that “Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people,” and that “use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people.'”

The early memo raised similar concerns about digital IDs, saying that Austin appears to be moving away from this technology. “Early reports have stated that use of this technology has resulted in significant barriers and specifically deters undocumented clients and clients with psychosis from using those services associated with the technology,” the document says.

The newly released memo identifies just two “challenges” with implementing digital IDs, as opposed to biometrics: “Authenticating identity for someone with no existing ID is time consuming to obtain initial records to load into the system,” and “The technological and human capacity to develop, implement, and maintain a digital solution will require resources.” The “challenges” listed for biometrics include the fact that “[a]dvocates may fight implementation” and the potential that fingerprint scans could require a review under the city’s surveillance ordinance.

Human Services Department Opposes Biometric Screening for Homeless, But Refuses to Hand Over Memo Saying So

Staffers for the city’s Human Services Department who looked into “biometric” screening of homeless shelter clients last year strongly recommended that the city not move forward with the idea, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal. The emails also show that HSD staffers asked the mayor’s office to include their recommendations in the official response to questions I asked about biometrics in December, but they did not..

Last year, as I reported, Durkan directed HSD to look into the possibility of requiring homeless Seattleites to undergo biometric screening—for example, a fingerprint scan—to access shelter. The mayor’s office said mandatory screening was one possible solution to data duplication in the Homeless Management Information System, a database that keeps track of what services people experiencing homelessness are using, and that it would create “efficiencies” as well as better “customer service” for people staying in shelters. Opponents of such screening argue that collecting homeless people’s fingerprints or other biometric data raises significant privacy concerns, and that it will discourage vulnerable people from accessing services.

The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters.  The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”

Several of the emails the city provided in response to my records request originally included a memo (titled “Shelter Memo”) containing HSD’s rationale for recommending that the city abandon the idea of biometric screening. However, an HSD public disclosure officer removed this memo from the records, claiming it is exempt from disclosure because it “reflects the expression of opinions, recommendations, and possible policy formulations that make up the pre-decisional free flow of opinions and ideas to policymakers, the disclosure of which would harm the ongoing decision making process.” This “deliberative process” exemption is the same exemption HSD used to justify heavily redacting documents about a proposed safe parking lot for people living in their cars. Typically, this exemption is used to withhold early drafts of legislation.

However, the agency did, perhaps inadvertently, provide an email that included a draft memo outlining the reasons HSD opposes biometric screening of homeless clients. It’s unclear how much, if any, of this early memo ended up in HSD’s final shelter memo. The memo begins, “The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters.  The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”

It continues: “Resources indicate that using biometrics at shelters (i.e. fingerprint scans or facial recognition software) will alienate people living outside and/or potentially seeking shelter. This may result in a lower percentage of people using shelter and increase the percentage of people who live outside as opposed to using available indoor shelter.”

“From our perspective at [HSD], we do not consider the loss of scan cards to be such a substantial issue that we believe they outweigh our concerns with the use of biometrics.”

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“Shelter staff will be needed at entry to facilitate fingerprint scans and enroll anyone with cold, burned or otherwise damaged hands or any other struggles or refusal to fingerprint scanning—a potentially higher or increasing percentage of users than anticipated by policy makers,” the memo says.

“Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people. Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people.'” For example, “[t]he finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.”

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Emails from HSD staffers show a department frustrated by Durkan’s request to quickly study and make recommendations on an idea that many at HSD viewed as highly problematic from the start.

“[F]or everyone’s clarity purposes, we at HSD aren’t advocating for this,” strategic advisor Dusty Olson wrote in a December 11 email asking staffers to come up with information about biometrics at the mayor’s request. “It will be our recommendation in the memo that it not be pursued for multiple reasons. But we have to answer the question that was asked of us which is what would it take to do it.”

The preliminary memo identifies a number of other potential “unintended consequences” and potential “harms” of biometric scanning and tracking of people experiencing homelessness. Among them: The  likelihood that a large number of people (particularly those with paranoia or psychosis) would refuse to submit to fingerprinting and scanning, and the fact that advocates would likely decry biometrics as an “oversimplified” method of tracking people that “objectif[ies] and separate[s] groups of already marginalized people.”

“Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people,'” the memo continues. “The finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.” Continue reading “Human Services Department Opposes Biometric Screening for Homeless, But Refuses to Hand Over Memo Saying So”

Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers”

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

At the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city’s Human Services Department is studying the possibility of mandatory biometric screening of homeless shelter and service clients, using fingerprints or other biometric markers to track the city’s homeless population as they move through the homelessness system. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says that the use of biometrics or a “digital ID” would create “efficiencies” that improve on the scan cards currently used by some Seattle shelters. “Different cities and states have explored solutions including digital IDs and biometrics, so the City has been gathering information on how to improve services,” she says.

The city also maintains that there is currently widespread duplication of data from shelters and service providers—redundant information that makes it hard for the city to track how many people are using services and which services are most effective.

Hightower says the new technology may provide “new ways to better serve persons experiencing homelessness… allow[ing] people to access services without having to maintain hardcopy documents” or hang on to scan cards.

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing [biometrics]. Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”—Email from Deputy Mayor David Moseley to HSD director Jason Johnson

“One clear challenge [with scan cards] is that individuals can lose their cards,” Hightower says. But critics, and some HSD staffers, are skeptical that the benefits of better data outweigh privacy and other concerns raised by biometric tracking. And homeless advocates point out that  people often lose their IDs and other documents when the city sweeps their encampment and removes or throws away their stuff, a policy that has accelerated under Durkan.

In an email on November 4, which I obtained through a records request, deputy mayor David Moseley directed HSD director Jason Johnson to look into “how would we convert to biometrics for folks entering … shelter?”

“Apparently this is something San Francisco does and that Mark Dones”—the consultant whose firm received $637,000 over the past year for their work on the new regional homelessness authority—”advocates for,” Moseley wrote.

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In a 2018 report to the city and county, Dones  recommended “explor[ing] opportunities to create radically accessible, customer-driven services through digital identification” for people experiencing homelessness in King County. A digital ID is an encrypted file containing medical information and other personal data that is typically accessed through the use of fingerprints or other biometric markers rather than a scan card or physical documents. Advocates for digital IDs and fingerprinting say that it helps homeless shelters provide service to clients faster; detractors call it “dangerous” technology that is “ripe for abuse.”

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing,” Moseley continued. “Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”

The task of looking into biometrics, along with several other research projects, fell to HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, who expressed her concerns in an email to Diana Salazar, the director of HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division. “The one we would need to do the most work on would be the biometrics. That will be incredibly unpopular with Council and some advocates, who were concerned about the invasive elements of using scan cards,” Olson wrote. Some large shelter providers distribute scan cards to clients; these cards are linked to the Homeless Management Information System, which contains information about everyone who enters the homelessness system.

“I am not sure they are trying to solve a specific problem. [Durkan] probably just heard about a cool thing. …. I think we need to just research biometrics and make a recommendation.” — HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, internal email

Privacy and homeless advocates contacted by The C Is for Crank were not aware of the city’s behind-the-scenes work on biometrics, but raised a number of objections to the concept. Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project for the Washington state ACLU, says the use of biometrics seems like a high-tech solution in search of a problem, and points out that local data collection can have unintended consequences; Seattle shares data from its automated license plate readers with the state Department of Transportation, for example, but has no control over how WSDOT uses that data or whether they share it with federal agencies such as ICE.

“Why is it so difficult for them to identify people through a means other than putting everyone’s biometrics in a database?” Narayan asks. “What problem is your shiny tech doo-dad the solution to? And if you’re going to force people to give up their biometrics, it had better be for a really really good reason. But we haven’t had the chance to have that conversation because they’re jumping ahead to the shiny new thing.”

Continue reading “Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers””

Seattle Considers Free Wi-Fi Downtown, But at What Cost to Privacy?

Photo: Intersection

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine

A Google-affiliated company called Intersection is in talks with the city of Seattle to provide free Wi-Fi service, phone charging ports, and real-time information about city services at bus stops throughout downtown Seattle — but there’s a catch.

According to New York-based Intersection, which has an office in Seattle, the kiosks provide steady revenue to cities through ad-sharing agreements while remaining “completely free for cities, taxpayers, and users.” The concept has its fans (New York and London have signed up), but also its critics, who have raised concerns about privacy, data sharing, and visual clutter on city streets.

The deal, proponents say, would provide the city with badly needed funding for transportation projects, promote digital equity for Seattle residents without access to the Internet at home or through their cell-phone provider, and enhance Seattle’s reputation as a “Smart City” that uses data to provide services more efficiently. But at a time when companies like Facebook are facing questions over their use of members’ private information, privacy advocates are cautioning cities to pump the brakes on partnerships with big-data companies that promise something for nothing.

Representatives for Intersection and LinkNYC, a division of New York City’s information technology department,  did not return multiple calls and emails for comment before press time.  According to the company’s website, the kiosks offer advertisers a “real-time, localized platform—fed by data-driven APIs—to connect with their audiences with more relevance, in the context of their journeys throughout the city.”

When reached after the initial publication of this story, Intersection spokesman Dan Levitan said the company does not collect browsing data or track users across the city. He did not deny that the technological capability for such data collection does exist, but stressed that the privacy policy for LinkNYC requires that this activity does not take place in any capacity. Intersection says that its privacy policy agreement in New York City protects users from data collection activity. Those agreements, however, are made on a city-to-city basis, and the issues now being raised by privacy advocates in Seattle draw comparisons to those raised by the New York Civil Liberties Union last year.

“Intersection takes user privacy seriously and works closely with our city partners to craft strong privacy policies for all our Link deployments. We do not track or record the browsing activity of our users,” Levitan said. “Advertising on Link displays is never targeted at any individual, and there is no advertising inserted on mobile devices that connect to Link Wi-Fi. Cameras are only used for monitoring and maintenance of the structures and cannot be used for advertising or any other purpose. Footage is only accessible by law enforcement with a court order or lawful request. We are proud of the LinkNYC program, our partnership with the City of New York, and the of the service we provide to over 3.7 million users.”

City council member Mike O’Brien says that when former mayor Ed Murray broached the kiosk proposal last year, the pitch was that the ad revenues could help pay for the downtown streetcar. Although the streetcar project has been put on hold because of cost overruns, the city is facing another imminent transportation funding challenge: Federal funding for the 2015 Move Seattle levy, which funds transportation projects across the city is falling short of expectations, which could lead the city to look for new revenues to offset some of the shortfall.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office declined to comment on the record about the Link Seattle plan, but is reportedly reviewing the latest version of Intersection’s privacy policy and could announce something publicly in the next few months. Mafara Hobson, communications director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, says SDOT “is conducting an initial research and feasibility study” on the plan, but adds that “the work remains a preliminary concept that would require executive approval and significant legislative review and requirements.” (SDOT is the lead agency on the proposal because the kiosks would be located in city rights-of-

O’Brien says he’s “skeptical” of Intersection’s proposal, both because it would require changing the city’s sign code to allows ads on city sidewalks—itself a major political lift—and because of a “growing concern about how companies are capturing our data and using it” without our knowledge. “When you’re realizing the stupid test you took on Facebook now is in the hands of some international conglomerate that’s trying to influence elections,” O’Brien says, it makes sense for cities to “be very careful” about authorizing companies to collect their residents’ private information.

Specifically, privacy advocates in other cities have raised alarms about how Intersection uses the data it collects. Although Intersection has said that it collects only “anonymous, aggregated” information about its users, digital privacy advocates say that “anonymous” information can be analyzed not only to extrapolate what type of ads a kiosk should display based on a user’s search history, but to identify and track specific people based on their “digital fingerprints”—a troubling capability in the hands of overzealous law enforcement, or immigration officials seeking to track down undocumented immigrants, or an employer who wants to know how many hours a perspective hire puts in at her current job.

“We hold government to a higher standard than businesses—they’re not supposed to be profiting at the expense of the people,” says David Robinson, a member of the Seattle Privacy Coalition who is skeptical of Intersection’s privacy claims. “If the data is being stored somewhere, then eventually someone will abuse it, no matter what the policy is. If you really don’t want people’s data to be misused, then you shouldn’t be be collecting it.”

Shankar Narayan, policy director for the ACLU of Washington, says “it sounds very much as though the price of free Wi-Fi is going to be Seattleites becoming the product—their movements, possibly the information on their cell phones, being downloaded and monetized by a company.”

Although proponents at the city argue that free Wi-Fi levels the playing field between people who have smartphones with unlimited data plans and those who don’t, Narayan says that’s a Faustian bargain. “Basically, we’re saying people who have the means to have an unlimited mobile plan don’t have to sacrifice their privacy to get Wi-Fi.”

Additionally, data collection opens up the possibility of data breaches, like the one at Facebook that allowed Cambridge Analytica to gather personal information on tens of millions of Facebook users.

Devin Glaser, the policy and political director of Upgrade Seattle, a group that advocates for municipally funded broadband service, says free Wi-Fi at bus stops does almost nothing to address the lack of digital equity in Seattle. “If you picture a 12-year-old child needing an internet connection to finish their homework, the fact that they can have access while at the bus stop doesn’t really cut it,” Glaser says. “We need to ensure that all of Seattle’s residents have a robust home connection, not an ad-driven boost to our Words with Friends games while we’re waiting for the 7.”

In New York City, where a consortium of companies, including Intersection, signed a 12-year contract with the city to install more than 1,000 kiosks under the brand name LinkNYC in 2016, the program has been a source of controversy. Touch-screen tablets had to be removed from the kiosks because passersby were using them to watch pornography, and privacy advocates raised questions about the company’s retention of personal data, including browser history. A spokeswoman for LinkNYC says that the city’s privacy policy prohibits Intersection from tracking user data or search history or targeting advertising based on personal information in New York City, although they have the technological ability to do so.

Although citizen activists convinced the city to revise Intersection’s privacy policy, which now says the company will not collect people’s private information, there are still cameras in every kiosk, which have raised concerns about how the video might be used. Intersection says it deletes that video every seven days unless it’s needed “to investigate an incident,” and a spokeswoman for LinkNYC, which operates out of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, says the city’s revised privacy agreement with Intersection does not allow the company to use its cameras to target individuals for advertising based on characteristics like gender or race. The spokeswoman, Kate Blumm, says only 37 of the cameras are currently operating, although she said the others could be turned on in the future.

Privacy advocates say Seattle has done a better job than most major cities, including New York, of protecting its residents from public and private surveillance. Last year, the city council passed an ordinance that gives the council some oversight over city departments’ use of surveillance technologies—things like the controversial “wireless mesh” system that gave Seattle police the ability to track people using wireless devices throughout the city, or the Acyclica system, which tracks travelers’ progress through downtown using a series of devices that detect and identify people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices. (A full list of the 28 city-operated surveillance technologies identified last year is available on the city’s website.)

Seattle could consider beefing up its privacy ordinance to make it harder for companies to track and misuse user data. But that would require leaders to educate themselves on emerging privacy concerns proactively, the ACLU’s Narayan says. “Cities are not often sophisticated actors in this space—they don’t know when they’re getting a bad deal.” Narayan says that before cities sign deals with companies like Intersection, they should take the time to understand how the technology operates and put the appropriate safeguards in place.

“When automobiles first came in, there were no speed limits and no red lights, and people were getting run over and killed all the time,” Narayan says. “The automobile didn’t die because we invented red lights and air bags and better brakes and put bumpers on cars. The technology better and everyone got a better deal out of it.”