OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | At a time when Americans are increasingly skeptical of government surveillance in their lives, the Oakland City Council reversed the trend early Wednesday morning by authorizing funding for a large-scale citywide surveillance center backed by federal stimulus dollars.
As dozens of critics consistently interrupted and jeered discussion of approving $2 million for the surveillance clearinghouse of multiple video and analytics feeds from the Port of Oakland and across the city, known as the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), some restrictions were added by three members of the council.
To assuage some concerns the council rushed the DAC through committee without a failsafe for resident’s privacy and the retention of data, Councilmembers Lynette Gibson, Dan Kalb and Libby Schaaf added language for staff to create a specific policy. According to the amendment, the DAC will not be “activated” until the City Council approves the privacy guidelines no later than March 2014.
Aside from some privacy concerns and worries about potential abuses by the DAC, the council was relatively supportive of the controversial surveillance program, which passed, 6-0 (Councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks were absent). “We have tried our best to find the sweet spot to make our city safe,” said Schaaf.
However, the second contentious Oakland City Council in less than a week produced new questions over the scope and authority of the DAC. City staff acknowledged the program would warrant approval by the court-appointed Oakland PD compliance director Thomas Frazier. It also remains unclear exactly what the city and port hope to incorporate into the surveillance system.
A widely-distributed chart found on the Port of Oakland's Web site detailed potential video and data feeds that could be streamed to the DAC, including over 700 closed circuit cameras located in and around Oakland schools. Renee Domingo, the director of city emergency services, said Tuesday night, the inclusion of school cameras is not part of the DAC’s second phase. The statement and others by city staff backtracked from a far more effusive description of the DAC during a Public Safety Committee meeting July 9 detailing a wide range of potential data points fed into the surveillance system, including school cameras. Later in the long meeting that stretched on until 1:30 a.m., in response to a question about the length of time the DAC will be monitored, Domingo said the system will be staff around-the-clock once funding for a staff of roughly three is found.
Concerns over how much more invasive the cameras can become in the future were also raised. Ahsan Baig, the city's interim manager for technology services, said facial recognition software is not part of the current DAC, nor on the “roadmap.” But, during the same July 9 meeting, he told council members, while the feature was not currently part of the DAC, its addition constituted a simple software upgrade.
Linda Lye, an attorney for the ACLU, told the council, systems like the DAC do not lower crime . She cited studies showing they, in fact, allow law enforcement to target minorities. “Surveillance systems do not make us safer,” she said, “but have the potential for discrimination.” In a letter to the council last week, Lye criticized it for moving the item through committee with the hope of laying down ground rules for its use and data retention after the fact. Although, some in the audience disagreed with the ACLU attorney’s suggestion urging the council to, at minimum, craft privacy controls into the system rather than disavow the program entirely, she said, “It’s our strong recommendation that you do not put the cart before the horse.”
For critics of the DAC, the long wait until the agenda item, placed next to last on a lengthy final meeting of the legislative year, appeared to zap their zeal to fight. Some complained of the political gamesmanship of the council waiting out Oakland’s often ravenous public speakers until after 11 p.m., while many anticipating to speak left early. Those who stayed, however, hissed, jeered and berated council members unmercifully. Two of the DAC’s biggest supporters, Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Schaaf, took the brunt of critic’s verbal attacks. Gallo appeared unnerved when audience members continually called him a fascist, while one woman repeatedly called Schaaf a “sick person.”
Polls continue to show a growing number of Americans are becoming more concerned about the gradual loss of privacy to the government following the leak of damning intelligence by former CIA member Edward Snowden. The revelations showed the federal government’s capability to spy on Americans were pervasive and largely unfettered. However, in Oakland, a city long racked by spikes in violent crime, while also the cradle of highly successful populist protests over the past four years, some like Schaaf, said Tuesday, she could not justify turning down federal funding that could aid Oakland in stopping crime. But, Sara Jeong, a Harvard law student, warned the council their actions Tuesday night will be thoroughly discussed and criticized in classrooms and think tanks across the nation. She added, “I don’t think you want to be on the cutting edge of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.”