Guile For The Camera: Seattle Spends Five Million On Surveillance System It Cannot Decide How To Use

Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger

Seal of the City of Seattle

In another shining example of “The White Elephant in the room might go away” the City Council of Seattle approved, in an 11 minute consultation, to proceed with acting to implement a large surveillance system on Seattle waterways before a five million dollar Homeland Security grant would be forfeited due to a “use it or lose it” clause.  And so far, nobody has decided how to use it.

The system originated from the city seeking and being approved for a five million dollar federal grant to purportedly prevent terrorist acts on the popular waterfront areas of Puget Sound.  The system operated 28 cameras connected by a wireless network.  It seems the hunger for free money was to be quickly satisfied before any sort of plan or discussion as to the privacy or constitutional implications was considered.  The council none-the-less snapped at the money unanimously but now is in disarray as to what to do with this new system.


Incredibly, the cameras started making much discussion when they were being discovered by citizens visiting the waterfronts in January, many wondering where they came from.  But as great of a mystery was what is the city going to do with the White Elephant’s friend, the 800 pound privacy gorilla now sharing the same council chamber.

The subject of the cameras led to a news expose by local news agency which in turn fueled a row among many in the public including a representative for the American Civil Liberties Union who was quoted as saying “We’d like them to not be turned on until we have really good privacy protections in place” and “All of this, we normally would like to see this happen before anything is purchased” But it became rather evident that no plan was ever considered seriously when the seduction of the free money was so enchanting to these officials to act before they thought.

Once councilmember, Mike O’Brien said “When federal money comes in, the financing drives our policy decisions”.

But, once the controversy ensued a sudden change of heart came to mind.  The city council then reversed course and retroactively required the Seattle Police Department to explain the program, its intent, and to develop procedures to ensure that privacy be maintained.  Later, in December, the council will vote on whether or not to allow the program to start the cameras rolling.  A no vote would signal the cameras will not be turned on at all, that is nearly a year after they were first installed.

But regardless there reportedly is no timeline or deadline for the Seattle Police or the Mayor to release these rules the city is to follow regarding the cameras. Still Mayor Mike McGinn believes it was not a waste proclaiming “You know, we always like to get things done as efficiently as possible, but you also want to do it right the first time”

It might be argued that getting it right the first time could involve doing whatever it takes to get all the federal grant money possible in the beginning, then figuring out what to do with it at some indefinite time in the future, if at all.

Source: KOMO News

18 thoughts on “Guile For The Camera: Seattle Spends Five Million On Surveillance System It Cannot Decide How To Use”

  1. Tony,

    “I’d still like better vetting of such contracts, though.”

    I can’t argue with that. Operational efficiencies are where you make them.

  2. Gene: True enough.

    I’d still like better vetting of such contracts, though.

    As one example, one of my clients got a contract to develop a sensing device (which for the purpose of the contract was classified as a “weapon” despite being really nothing of the sort). The contract was an “at cost” contract, which was the first I had heard of and perplexed me, until I found out what could be included in the “cost:” One of the items included as a high six-figure “cost” was about 200 brand new desktop computers and monitors, a high speed local area network, servers, printers, plotters and a microfiche printing machine. Another item in the “cost” was 48 high end color oscilloscopes. Another item in the “cost” was a six-figure expense for thousands of field programmable gate arrays, when perhaps a dozen were needed. I think more than half the “cost” was an unnecessary Christmas list for the company; we had a dozen engineers working on the project, not 200. But the company kept a few million dollars worth of equipment when the contract was done.

    To me that is just abuse, the actual justifiable costs on the project were probably a fifth of what was paid by the DoD. I saw many other examples, I really don’t think the DoD has anybody that has the slightest idea of what things should cost, or what justifiable expenses really are. Or maybe it is just better marketing to the morons in Congress to claim it is an “at cost” contract or “cost plus two percent” when in fact it is five or ten times justifiable cost.

  3. Tony,

    Holding the money is escrow as an offset for future requests isn’t necessarily the same thing as removing Congressional oversight. You could place the money in escrow solely as an offset against future funding requests. Say Company X gets a grant for 500K. The job ends up costing 400K. Instead of requiring them to piss away the money or return it (which face it is going to end up with pissing it away), you could require them to escrow it as an offset with a horizon for returning the money if not used at all – say 5 or 10 years. The next grant they apply for is also 500K. Congress funds 400K and tells them to use the offset. That’s far more efficient than simply encouraging waste.

  4. I consulted for companies with contracts with the Department of Defense that frequently employed the use it or lose it clause. I think that formulation flows downhill from Congress itself, its budgets are approved periodically and have an inherent quality of “use it or lose it,” you cannot spend more in a calendar year than your budget, and you cannot “save up” money for actions later that might not have been approved by Congress.

    It is inefficient, but I don’t think it is as easy to get around as an escrow account somewhere; Congressional oversight is subverted if money is granted for a purpose to be decided at some indefinite time in the future.

    I think the fault lies in granting the money; the grantor should not grant money without a plan that meets some sort of independent legal review, and installing cameras willy nilly shouldn’t pass review.

    As it stands, one alternative may be to turn on the cameras, but demand law enforcement require a warrant with a reason to view the feed or the recordings within some time frame.

  5. Gene is correct. However, there are many factors that some into play in grant administration, so that what looks like “use it or lose it” could be something else altogether. Best bet is to remain in close communication with the grant administrator throughout the period and work together to adjust as needed.

  6. Good article Darren…

    Use it or lose it is partly what’s wrong with the budget process….

    Maybe they’ll catch Exxon and really hit them with a fine that will be commiserate with the cost of clean up…..

  7. A retired FBI friend who was still working in 2001 in Alaska, told me there was solid intelligence after 9/11 that our ferry systems in Alaska and Seattle were prime targets. So, that was the impetus for this money. The comments here about the “use it or lose it” system in place are spot on.

  8. OS,

    I understand that’s exactly how they do it. It’s just not the only way to do it. If a practice creates inefficiencies like this one here, it’s a process problem. Unless it’s a case of physical impossibility, I’ve never seen a process problem that couldn’t be mitigated or eliminated.

  9. Gene,
    Every time I had my hands on grant money, the granting agency supervisor always made it clear the money had to be spent on the project no later than the last day of the budget year. There was no provision for holding it in escrow or they would have demanded a refund. I have been funded by both the Dept. of Education and Justice. Both had very similar rules regarding how and when the money was to be used.

  10. I have a hard time understanding the problem of having those cameras since being out in public does not give you any expectation of privacy. It is the same as having a cop out there instead of cameras. Would that be a violation if they replaced the cameras with a cop?

  11. “I wish there was a way around the use it or lose it clauses in grant money.”

    There is, OS. Change the clause to be a ‘use it or hold in escrow to offset future requests’ clause. There is nothing sacred about the use it or lose it approach to it. Except it plays into the hands of government contractors.

  12. I wish there was a way around the use it or lose it clauses in grant money. I have no idea how many times I have seen grantees go out and buy stuff they neither needed or could use, but if they didn’t spend it, they would have to send it back. The way granting agencies work, if you didn’t use it all this year, we will cut your funding by that amount for next year.

  13. “It might be argued that getting it right the first time could involve doing whatever it takes to get all the federal grant money possible in the beginning, then figuring out what to do with it at some indefinite time in the future, if at all.”

    There you go, Darren. Makin’ sense again.

  14. Darren,
    It sounds like Seattle is not much different from every other big city. I guess we should be happy they got it right. Even if it was a little late. Maybe they can move the cameras into the police interrogation room instead!

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