Domain Awareness Center Blues

Oakland surveillance center to get slow rollout following concern about its scope.


Privacy advocates in Oakland scored a major victory in March when the City Council responded to months of community activism by limiting the scope of the Domain Awareness Center to the Port of Oakland.

The center is a centralized intelligence-gathering system conceived by the city in 2008 after it received funding from the Department of Homeland Security to ramp up security for the port. Over the next year, the city decided to make the system citywide. The initial idea was to boost the response time of emergency responders by collecting hundreds of video feeds from around Oakland into one so-called “fusion center”—a central database where real-time and recorded camera feeds are monitored.

The scope of this all-purpose response system surfaced in July 2013, when the council unanimously approved funding for the second phase of the DAC. This phase would have integrated emergency response and tracking systems for agencies like the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Fire Department, the U.S. Geological Survey Seismic Monitory, and the Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, Radiological and Explosive monitoring. Phase two also planned to integrate closed-circuit video feeds from hundreds of cameras in public spaces throughout Oakland, including public schools and the Coliseum.

But the revelations alarmed privacy advocates, who were concerned by the center’s surveillance scope and the absence of defined regulations to protect individual privacy rights. Additionally, some privacy rights organizations worried that the center would act like a surveillance dragnet, indiscriminately monitoring the activities of innocent civilians. Fears over the potential abuses of the system were exacerbated by the lack of information provided by city staff. Lynda Lee, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said she was shocked by the staff’s lack of transparency regarding the intentions.

“There was substantial mismatch between the justifications offered for the center as port security and the actual configuration of the center, which was training surveillance systems all over innocent Oakland residents in a way that had nothing to do with furthering port security,” Lee said.

Some of the inspiration for the center’s crime-fighting dimension probably came from the OPD’s vision for an Integrated Public Safety System. Outlined in a staff report in 2008, that system was also designed as a “fusion center,” but with the clear-cut goal of combating crime. Some elements of the center—like Shotspotter (a gunshot detection technology) and license plate scanners—would have served a specific law-enforcement purpose,

In November, the East Bay Express reported that Science Applications International Corporation, the company contracted to develop the first phase of the DAC, had lied about its involvement in nuclear-weapons work. Several emails indicated that the city was aware that hiring SAIC violated Oakland’s Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Ordinance, and other leaked emails indicated that city staff intended to use the system to monitor political demonstrations. These revelations further stirred up public mistrust, and privacy advocates ramped up opposition.

JP Massar, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, a grassroots community organization working on privacy and anti-surveillance efforts that grew out of Occupy Oakland, said the center’s surveillance powers were especially worrisome, given the National Security Agency’s infringement on people’s constitutional rights.

“My specific concerns are that it is a violation of our First and Fourth Amendment civil rights; that it’s essentially a test case for the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security to get a foothold in cities to do this all over the country,” Massar said.

City staff drafted a privacy and data retention framework for the center in February, but privacy advocates consider it insufficient. Nada Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the document lacks critical information on oversight.

“It’s missing any mechanism for enforcement,” Kayyali said. “There also needs to be a neutral body where people can go to if they feel like their privacy may have been invaded. … There also need to be very specific rules in the policy about retention of data and the ability for people to access information that may have been gathered about them.”

The city council responded to the civic outcry at a meeting in February. After hearing from nearly 150 community members, the council approved going forward—but with a weakened form of the center.

The council barred the center from sharing information with other agencies without council approval and disconnected it from dozens of traffic cameras. The council also agreed to assemble a committee to draft a privacy policy for the center regarding—among other things—length of data retention, access to data, data-sharing agreements, and protocol for redressing civilian complaints.

Many privacy advocates are not happy with the council’s motion. But others see a silver lining in that the city is now compelled to draw up privacy regulations for Oakland.

“I want it dead,” Massar said. “But on the other hand, Oakland needs a very strong and very specific privacy policy for the whole city.”

Some groups are especially eager to see the city give them greater privacy rights. Dustin Craun, a founder of Oakland’s Lighthouse Mosque, said that any privacy policy for the center should explicitly protect religious groups from harassment by law enforcement agencies like the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The ACLU’s Lee said that while she is pleased with the results of the council’s decision, she wants to see much more defined policies for guiding the operations of the DAC. “There needs to be a clearly articulated purpose for which the data will be used, and there need to be safeguards to ensure the data is not cross-purposed,” Lee said. “For example, if data is collected for port security, then it should only be used for port security, not to engage in surveillance of innocents.”

Lee cited the example of the record-management system that was slated for phase two in the center. Ostensibly to collect information for port security, the center could have allowed different agencies to swap sensitive arrest records, potentially putting them in the hands of non-law enforcement officials, Lee said. She acknowledged it was a hypothetical issue, since a concrete privacy policy hasn’t been hammered out. But she said she was very concerned about an increasing trend involving local governments acquiring federal funds for surveillance systems without seeking voter approval.

“Unelected staff apply for these grants, and elected leaders don’t give it the kind of review they normally would, because it’s perceived as free money,” Lee said. “There’s not much debate or discussion, and the public is not aware of these issues, because they’re put on the consent calendar and nobody notices.“

Several opponents of the center were especially disturbed by how little oversight existed over city staff working on the program.

Not everyone wants to continue scaling down Oakland’s surveillance. Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who voted in favor of the limited center, said that while she wants to see the creation of strong privacy protocols, she is in favor of eventually expanding the center’s video feed.

“I actually want to add many more video feed connections from more cameras in the city,” Kernighan said. “Mainly for the purpose of the situational awareness for first responders—their primary use—but I’d be open to using them to identify people who have committed serious crimes.”

Kayyali said she hopes that the city begins a broader dialogue with the community about the center, especially in light of Mayor Jean Quan’s promise to expand the system’s surveillance functions in the future.

“Those folks who were in the crowd at the meeting who were outside chanting, I hope somebody representing those folks is consulted even if they’re not a part of the committee,” Kayyali said. “The strongest policy is going to come from the people with the most concerns about the DAC.”

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