SEATTLE (AP) — A Seattle privacy activist says a plainclothes federal agent briefly seized his camera this week after he took photographs from a public sidewalk near the federal building downtown, and that he was harassed by a different federal officer the next day.
Phil Mocek said he was walking to work Wednesday morning when he took a picture of what appeared to be unmarked or personal vehicles parked in a row of spots reserved for law enforcement outside the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building.
Soon afterward, a white truck that had been parked in one of the spots drove by Mocek and pulled a U-turn, parking crooked in the street, he said. A man got out and grabbed his camera.
Mocek called 911, and two Seattle police officers arrived but refused to take a report. The man who took the camera identified himself as an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He began going through the pictures as an officer from the Federal Protective Service and a private security guard who works at the federal building watched.
The agent eventually returned the camera, but one of the images had been deleted, Mocek said.
Seattle police spokeswoman Renee Witt said it was the officers’ judgment not to take a report, and she referred further questions to the ATF. Seattle ATF spokesman Bill Perkins said the agency was aware of the incident but had no immediate comment.
It is not against the law to take photographs in public, or to take photographs of federal facilities, though some law enforcement officials have been sensitive about such activity since 9/11.
On Thursday, again as Mocek was walking to work, he said he saw the same Federal Protective Service officer who had witnessed the previous day’s incident. The officer took out his Blackberry phone and appeared to begin taking pictures or video of Mocek.
Mocek recorded the three-and-a-half-minute encounter and posted it online. It shows the officer following Mocek and at times taunting him, as a security guard for a private company that works at the federal building also takes pictures.
“Is there a problem, sir?” Mocek asks.
“I don’t know, is there? You tell me,” the officer responds. “Why are you blocking your face, huh?”
“Are you investigating something?”
“No, I’m just taking pictures,” the officer says. “Maybe I’m just out here taking pictures.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Federal Protective Service, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The service is tasked with protecting federal facilities.
Mocek, who works in software development and systems administration and works with a group called the Seattle Privacy Coalition, said he has taken photos of cars parked in the law enforcement-only stretch of spots before because he is interested in seeing whether, using a police database of records from automated license-plate readers, he could track where those cars had been.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington recently analyzed the use of such readers by Seattle police. It found that over a three-year period, the department generated 7.3 million records showing where and when license plates were recorded. The organization described that as an enormous privacy risk, and said that by using the data, it was possible to determine where certain police officers lived and in some cases where and when they took their lunch breaks.
“I believe strongly in personal privacy and institutional transparency,” Mocek said. “Given what’s happening at the federal level, I think it’s really important to look at what our local authorities are doing, how they’re tracking us and how they’re surveilling us.”
Mocek’s video of Thursday encounter: http://is.gd/6rHfTD
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.