News & Opinion » Feature

The Real Purpose of Oakland's Surveillance Center

City leaders have argued that Oakland needs a massive surveillance system to combat violent crime, but internal documents reveal that city staffers are also focused on tracking political protesters.



Page 4 of 5

After the council approved Kalb and Schaaf's resolution requiring creation of a privacy policy, city staffers appear to have strategized a way to work around the council's intentions so that they can build upon these DAC features. In an email exchange on July 26 between Domingo and Amadis Sotelo, a lawyer in the City Attorney's Office, the two discussed their revisions to the privacy policy. Sotelo remarked that the resolution language under consideration "limits you from being able to develop and implement data retention at later times."

"Is that your intention?" Sotelo asked Domingo.

"No, we want the flexibility to do this after Council approves the Policy," replied Domingo.

Baig then cut into the email exchange, asking Domingo, "How are you going to change after the Council approval?"

Domingo responded, "We've done this before recently. Amadis and I will handle it."

"It looks like city staff thinks they have flexibility to alter the policy after council approves it," said Lye of ACLU. "That raises huge questions."

City staffers involved in the project and the email exchanges didn't return our phone calls and emails during the month we spent reporting this story. The project's contractors also declined to speak to us. Councilmembers Kalb and Schaaf also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Siegel reviewed the above email exchange and many other records at our request. "I think they're trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the city council and the ACLU about what data is stored and what's not," he said. He added that other records show that whether or not the city's policies end up allowing the DAC to centrally warehouse video, the footage will still be saved and accessible. "They'll have incident markers, links that allow them to pull up footage from its source," he said. "So what difference does it make if they're storing it in the DAC or not?"

The city's data retention policy is currently being drafted by the Oakland Police Department under the supervision of Deputy Chief Eric Breshears and the City Attorney's Office.

Oakland resident Mary Madden, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, opposes the DAC unequivocally. She said OPD's role in the surveillance system's construction and in drafting privacy policies raises even more problems. "If Oakland would like to give the impression of caring about privacy, they should have the privacy guidelines crafted by an independent privacy expert, who understands the complex issues at stake, as well as the full DAC system and all its components," she said. "OPD has a history of not following their own rules, as the federal monitor pointed out. Examples include the crowd control policy and use of lapel cameras, so how can we trust OPD to follow their own privacy rules for the DAC?"

Once the Domain Awareness Center's Phase 2 construction is finished in July 2014, the center could link an untold number of public and private video cameras from businesses, traffic intersections, public housing properties, highways and onramps, transit stations, sports facilities, and public schools into a centralized hub. The DAC will also collect OPD's automated license-plate reader data, ShotSpotter gunshot detectors, and social media feeds — all to be monitored on a live basis.

July 2013 emails between SAIC project manager Taso Zografos and Chris Millar, a contractor hired to help oversee the DAC, identify sources of data and surveillance capabilities that would be built into the DAC in several phases. According to the emails, the first phase of "prioritized integrations" included the port's vehicle tracking system and its mapping systems, weather and seismic warnings, and video from BART and the Oakland Airport. The second group of "prioritized integrations" included police and fire dispatch, automatic vehicle location systems for OPD and OFD vehicles, video from Caltrans and California Highway Patrol cameras, and unspecified informational links between the DAC and two law enforcement "fusion centers" — hubs in which law enforcement intelligence is centralized — including the Northern California Regional Information Center. Oakland officials are also considering applying for grant funding for the DAC on the basis that it also operates as a fusion center. Such a designation could open up the DAC for funding sources additional to the federal grants that have bankrolled it to date.

According to the emails, "potential integrations" into the DAC include video feeds from the Oakland Coliseum, Oakland's red-light cameras, AC Transit, BART, city libraries, City Hall, Oakland Housing Authority properties, buildings owned by the Oakland Unified School District, and OPD's automated license-plate readers.

If the public housing, school, and public transit cameras are incorporated into the DAC, Oakland's communities of color could be placed under disproportionately intense surveillance. "In many instances, surveillance issues aren't just privacy issues; they're also racial justice issues," said Lye. "This means we're going to have complete surveillance of communities of color when they're going about their lives and doing nothing wrong whatsoever."

A critical component of the Domain Awareness Center will be "video analytics," or software that can interpret raw information from video streams and identify certain behavior or characteristics. The port already uses motion-detection software and image recognition around port property as part of a virtual fence that alerts staffers if someone is approaching facilities that are off-limits to the public. Emails between city and port officials in May revealed that port staffers have programmed port cameras to send email alerts when the video analytics detect cars engaged in street racing on Middle Harbor Road. The new technology has not put a halt to the chaotic and occasionally violent races.

Comments (21)

Showing 1-21 of 21

Add a comment

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.