Good Read: ‘The Real Purpose of Oakland’s Surveillance Center’

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Published Tuesday in the East Bay Express: A feature report by Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham on the build-out of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center. That’s a project that would centralize data gathered from a wide variety of sources, including networks of surveillance cameras around the city. Oakland officials have argued the center will be a key to fighting crime in the city at the same time that it will improve the ability of police and other agencies to monitor potential threats to key infrastructure, like the Port of Oakland. But what Winston and BondGraham report, by way of local privacy advocates who obtained thousands of pages of emails, memos and other records, is something quite different. They say:

The records we examined show that the DAC is an open-ended project that would create a surveillance system that could watch the entire city and is designed to easily incorporate new high-tech features in the future. And one of the uses that has piqued the interest of city staffers is the deployment of the DAC to track political protesters and monitor large demonstrations.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, was alarmed when we showed her emails that revealed that the Oakland Police Department has already started using the DAC to keep tabs on people engaged in First Amendment activity. “The fact that the focus so far has been on political protests, rather than the violent crime that’s impacting Oakland residents, is troubling, and telling about how the city plans to use the DAC,” she said.

…While the emails reveal a great deal about the DAC, they are also notable for what they do not talk about. Among the hundreds of messages sent and received by Oakland staffers and the city’s contractor team responsible for building the DAC, there is no mention of robberies, shootings, or the 138 homicides that took place during the period of time covered by the records. City staffers do not discuss any studies pertaining to the use of surveillance cameras in combating crime, nor do they discuss how the Domain Awareness System could help OPD with its longstanding problems with solving violent crimes. In more than 3,000 pages of emails, the terms “murder,” “homicide,” “assault,” “robbery,” and “theft” are never mentioned.

The Oakland City Council, under pressure from residents and privacy activists, voted last summer to go ahead with development of the Domain Awareness Center but to develop a set of safeguards to answer concerns about the system’s potentially invasive nature. The East Bay Express story suggests that city staff involved in implementing the center have discussed how to work around the privacy policy, which is still being developed.

The story notes that no one from the city or its contractors was willing to talk to the reporters. Some of the documents referenced in the Express story are posted on PublicIntelligence.net: City of Oakland Domain Awareness Center Emails.

KQED’s Mina Kim spoke with reporter Ali Winston on Wednesday about the month-long investigation:

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  • DavidsComments

    From the article – ‘“The fact that the focus so far has been on political protests, rather
    than the violent crime that’s impacting Oakland residents, is troubling,
    and telling about how the city plans to use the DAC,” she said.’

    The city has routinely absorbed huge costs from political protests that turned violent and destructive. There is nothing in this article that suggest the city has any nefarious intentions to quash free speech. Instead, they appear to be leveraging technology to more efficiently manage their resources and respond to protests when they are subverted by the self styled “anarchists” who seek destruction of property.

  • Omzoc

    WAKE UP people burrowing complacently in your technologically outfitted police state habitats you are paying for with city dollars: surveillance does not prevent destruction of property or violence — a city that’s responsive to our quality of life, including our right to privacy, does. How about paving our roads, opening lit doors, and giving people whistles to blow instead of filming, recording, watching and collecting data from which the few profit. Only ‘consumers’ (not “anarchists”) have the real power to stop implementing the ‘architecture of tyranny’ being created.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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