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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.



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The most controversial form of video analytics is facial recognition software that is programmed to automatically identify persons based on unique facial features. Source databases for facial recognition programs include employee records, DMV photos, and mugshots from law enforcement booking systems. The city council voted in July to bar the use of facial recognition during the DAC's current funding phase. However, facial recognition for closed-circuit television systems is rapidly gaining popularity among law enforcement. In January 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department began testing mobile surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software in the San Fernando Valley, with the intent of identifying known or wanted criminals. The Chicago Office of Emergency Services has also experimented with facial recognition programming for its 24,000 networked cameras, using Cook County's 4.5 million booking photos as the data source. In May, Chicago police officers made their first arrest with the help of facial recognition technology.

Shah of the University of Illinois-Chicago noted that the combined use of facial recognition technology and license-plate readers, which would be possible if the former technology is used in conjunction with the Oakland surveillance center, have the potential to take individual tracking to an unprecedented level. "Facial recognition and LPR directly tie to someone — [it's] what causes the most concern," said Shah.

The DAC is only one of several surveillance systems in progress in Oakland. In June 2012, then-Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan and then-Assistant Chief Anthony Toribio met with representatives of the Total Recall Corporation, a firm marketing a surveillance system called CrimeEye. Total Recall's cameras can zoom in from great distances, and can store footage for as long as a police department wants. If OPD opts to buy this camera unit and software package, a single unit at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway could have a range east to Lake Merritt, north to the Paramount Theater, and south and west to Interstate 880, according to materials the company provided to the city that we obtained.

In August, then-Oakland Chamber of Commerce Vice President Paul Junge and city staffer Joe DeVries exchanged emails about incorporating cameras owned and operated by the Downtown Oakland Association and Lake Merritt Uptown District Association business improvement districts into the Domain Awareness Center during phase three of the DAC construction in June 2014. DeVries also mentioned the possibility of including cameras installed by various neighborhood associations in the DAC.

Documents we obtained also reveal the Uptown and downtown BIDs are building their own surveillance center, and have submitted a $30,000 grant application to the MetLife Foundation to fund it. At some future date these cameras are also to be linked into the DAC.

In an influential 2012 paper about police surveillance technologies, Georgetown University law professor Laura Donohue observed that surveillance advances like facial recognition, vehicle tracking, and networked video monitoring are altering the nature of American society. "What we are witnessing is a sea change in how we think about individuals in public space," Donohue wrote. While Oakland's elected officials and city staff struggle with how to regulate this sprawling surveillance project, abstract issues such as privacy and security have become immediate and concrete for many city residents.

But the courts, as Donohue noted, are decades behind the newly ubiquitous surveillance methods. In one recent case — US v. Jones — that bought the law partly up to speed, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement officers violated the Constitution by placing GPS trackers on vehicles without warrants. (This ruling was later upheld by the US Supreme Court.) In the unanimous US v. Jones decision, DC Court of Appeals Justice Douglas Ginsberg wrote of the incredible power modern technology affords law enforcement: "A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one fact about a person, but all such facts."

The DAC, if completed as it's currently designed, will make Judge Ginsberg's scenarios a reality in Oakland.

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