Privacy advocates alarmed after Seattle-area police launch online tool to report illegal gatherings

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Downtown Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Police in Bellevue, Wash., are asking residents to report violations of the state’s “stay home” order online in an effort to clear up 911 lines for emergencies.

Suspected violations are tracked in the MyBellevue app and generate a heat map that shows where gatherings have been reported. The map shows “hot spots” of activity throughout the City of Bellevue, which is about 10 miles from Seattle.

Officials in Bellevue and around the world are walking a tightrope as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic in the digital age. The challenge they face is balancing the unique needs of an unprecedented public health crisis with fears of a technology-powered surveillance state. The U.S. government is already using location data from smartphones to help track the spread of COVID-19, for example, following similar initiatives in China, South Korea, and Singapore.

Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett. (Bellevue PD Photo)

Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said 911 operators have been inundated with calls from residents reporting suspected violations of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay home” order in the week since it took effect.

“We want to keep the 911 lines open and our dispatch center focused on the most serious issues,” Mylett said. “This tool allows the public to share the information that they want to share and provides us with the ability to monitor these situations.”

Mylett said Bellevue police do not plan to charge or arrest anyone for violating the stay home order. Instead, police will check out reported hot spots between calls to educate the people about the rules.

Washington state is one week into a two-week order that requires residents to remain in their homes. Exceptions include essential industries, trips to the doctor or grocery store, and walks around the neighborhood that maintain distance from other people. Inslee said last week that the order may be extended beyond two weeks.

Bellevue’s new tool allows people to report gatherings. (Bellevue PD Image)

Privacy advocates, like the ACLU of Washington’s Jennifer Lee, are concerned about the long-term implications of Bellevue’s new tool. As head of the Washington ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, she’s wary of Bellevue’s approach.

“Government responses need to be based in science and be necessary and proportionate to the crisis at hand,” she said. “With that comes a need for transparency on what data is being collected, what purpose it’s being used for, how long the data’s being retained, what tools are used to process that information and how that data will be used to help the public health crisis. That means the purpose of the data needs to be limited for the COVID19 crisis only.”

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Individuals reporting gatherings will be kept anonymous, according to the MyBellevue website. But the gatherings that are reported will be accessible to the public through the city’s open data portal.

Lee called for more transparency about Bellevue PD’s data collection and expressed concern that the tool may outlive the coronavirus outbreak.

“Sometimes there is a need to implement extreme measures but often these crises are used as justification to implement surveillance and data collection measures for purposes beyond that crisis,” she said.

Privacy advocates are sounding the alarm about surveillance measures governments around the world are pushing to track and slow the spread of COVID-19. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said so far, officials have not proven the need for such measures or addressed the privacy and civil rights implications of surveillance programs.

“Fear of surveillance chills and deters free speech and association,” EFF’s Adam Schwartz and Andrew Crocker wrote in a blog post. “And all too often, surveillance disparately burdens people of color.”

EFF warns that any new government surveillance technology could “be misused by its employees, stolen by criminals and foreign governments, and unpredictably redirected by agency leaders to harmful new uses.”

The Bellevue Police Department uses a variety of technology tools, like leveraging security footage from Ring doorbells, to aid in investigations. Mylett said he was surprised by the backlash that the department’s latest tech tool is igniting.

“The public is going to report these things,” he said. “They are, and all we’re doing is giving them a tool to report it without inundating our emergency 911 system and preventing people from being able to get through with emergency situations where they need our help right now.”

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