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Seattle Looks to Create Comprehensive Digital Privacy Standards

The city of Seattle has launched a new digital privacy initiative.

The city of Seattle has launched a new digital privacy initiative. Max Lindenthaler /

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Officials in Washington state’s largest city say they’re the first to undertake such a detailed assessment of open data protocols.

SEATTLE — As more and more cities make more and more of their accumulated data available and accessible to the public, what are some of the implications for privacy? Coming off an announcement by Mayor Ed Murray to launch a new digital privacy initiative, members of the Seattle City Council gathered at City Hall on Monday to discuss the new effort and ask questions of a panel of representatives from the mayor’s office and various city agencies.

“As we continue to make innovative technology investments, we need to implement practices that support public trust in the security and privacy of personal information,” Mayor Ed Murray said in the city's announcement.

The city is at the beginning of a multi-month timeline to assess the interplay of privacy and data and right now, there are plenty of open questions and concerns from local lawmakers.

“As a policymaker, I don’t even know how data is being used,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien told his colleagues during the briefing. And if city officials are unclear on how city data is being used and accessed, the public at large certainly doesn’t have a good understanding, he said.

Seattle officials want to change that. They noted that their city will be the first major U.S. city to conduct such an assessment of digital privacy concerns.

Seattle City Hall (Photo by Michael Grass /

“This is a great opportunity” for Seattle, Councilmember Sally Clark told her colleagues. But councilmembers admitted they’re entering uncharted waters.

“It’s exciting to be a leader on this but we have to figure all this out,” O’Brien said.

The city is in the process of putting together an advisory committee of academics and privacy “thought leaders” from the local community to create privacy principles, statements and a tool kit that will include a “data collection planning checklist, lightweight impact assessment, and standards to drive awareness and privacy statement compliance across departments,” according to the city’s digital privacy initiative overview.

Under the current timeline, the city’s interdepartmental team will finalize a privacy policy by March and the privacy toolkit by June, after which it will forward those to the council for approval and implementation.

The city has partnered with the University of Washington on its digital privacy initiative.

Jan Whittington, the associate director of the university’s Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, was recently awarded a grant to “examine the relationships that exist between open data, privacy and digital equity and what harm municipal data could lead to with consumers or the marketplace,” according to the city’s announcement.

Digital privacy is an issue that impacts many city departments and agencies, including the police and fire departments, transportation, city utilities and information technology, among others.

Mike Wagers, the chief operating officer of the Seattle Police Department, told councilmembers that police departments across the nation “are struggling with this issue.”

Seattle’s chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, told councilmembers that one of the goals of the digital privacy initiative is to “develop a holistic framework” for how data is published and released, especially when new technologies or IT platforms are introduced.

The city has already published 300 datasets through its portal

Councilmember Bruce Harrell asked the panel of city representatives whether the digital privacy initiative would stymie those ongoing open data efforts: “Are we stopping the opening of datasets by doing this?”

Mattmiller said the city wants to continue to be proactive with its open data efforts while balancing privacy concerns. And the digital privacy initiative aims to figure out where the balance lies.

“There will be disagreement in the community wherever we draw that line,” O’Brien told his colleagues.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, citing concerns over the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance program, wondered whether the city’s digital privacy initiative would lay out guidelines for the data and information it might share with that federal agency.

“Let’s face it,” she said, the NSA is “absolutely uncontrollable.”

Harrell, half-jokingly, said: “If they are watching: I like you, but I’m afraid of you.”

Mattmiller, who was previously a senior strategist for enterprise cloud privacy at Microsoft, noted that the city has to meet “certain obligations under federal law” when dealing with federal agencies.

There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of questions to answer, but councilmembers said they’re confident in their efforts.

“The city has never approached it in this kind of methodical and transparent manner across all city departments and engaging with privacy leaders in Seattle,” Harrell said in the city’s announcement.

(Top image via Max Lindenthaler/