Speed Reads

surveillance state

The FBI says its surveillance cameras need to be secret to protect the privacy of the people it's watching

A federal court has ruled in the FBI's favor in a dispute with the city of Seattle over whether the city can disclose in response to public records requests the location of FBI surveillance cameras affixed to city-owned utility poles.

Among the federal agency's arguments in support of surveillance secrecy was the bizarre contention that to reveal the location of the cameras would be a breach of privacy for the people the cameras are recording, because those people have yet to be charged with any crime:

Because of their close proximity to the subjects of surveillance, unauthorized disclosure of the locations of current or previously installed pole cameras can reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those persons under investigation who have not yet been charged. [Department of Justice]

The case was preemptively initiated by the FBI following a records request from a Seattle privacy advocate, but the precedent the ruling sets of broad deference to federal law enforcement privilege will be widely applicable beyond the specific circumstances in Washington state. The decision concurs with the Justice Department's argument that disclosure of the camera locations would cause "irreparable harm to important federal interests, namely, the ability to carry out effective investigations," even when the cameras are no longer in use for any active case.