The expansion of Oakland’s federally-supported port surveillance system to include the entire city was halted and scaled back by the city council after months of criticism from residents and civil liberties advocates.
The 5-4 vote reversed at least two other votes last year to expand the 2010 Department of Homeland Security data collection program originally meant to protect the city’s port and airport from terrorist attacks.
The Domain Awareness Center was looking beyond those facilities for data streams—from schools, the Coliseum, law enforcement agencies, license plate readers, digital license plates, private security cameras, news feeds, red-light cameras, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and other sources.
Gunshot detectors and 40 city street cameras and will no longer be connected to the system. Surveillance will be limited to the Port of Oakland and Oakland International Airport.
Some critics said the expansion was classic mission creep, as government sought to Hoover up any and all information it could get its hands on for indeterminate storage and undetermined use. Other critics went further, saying the entire center should be decommissioned and that the center was still poised to expand at a later date.
Distrust of the federal government’s role in the center—it provided millions of dollars in grant money—wasn’t the only concern. “We’re talking about giving a surveillance system for the entire city over to, perhaps, the most abusive police force in the country,” Oakland resident Joshua Daniels told the East Bay Express last July when the council voted to accept a $2 million federal grant to proceed.
The local police department has had federal oversight for a decade and been under the control of a court-appointed monitor since the beginning of 2013 for myriad transgressions. It went through three police chiefs in one week back in May.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California raised a number of objections to the expanded center in a letter to the city council. Among the complaints: the ACLU thought federal guarantees that it wouldn’t/couldn’t access the gathered data for its own purposes were worthless; tapping an undefined system that supposedly monitors gunshots around the city served no port/airport security purpose and could be used to eavesdrop on people; and the system’s vague monitoring of news feeds might include social media.
Supporters of the center and its expansion said the long-range plan was to provide a coordinated emergency management system that could be used in cases of natural disasters, hazardous spills and other threats to the public well-being besides terrorism.
City council members echoed ACLU concerns that it was unclear just what data was being gathered and who would have access to it. Mayor Jean Quan, who reluctantly broke the tie in the wee hours of the morning Wednesday after a spirited public meeting, said she was surprised at the intensity of the opposition and said, “I wish I had paid attention to it a little earlier. I really thought it was a no-brainer.”
The “it” she should have paid attention to was the residents’ response, not the system itself. Now that she’s thought about it, Quan said, the problem was lack of outreach to a misinformed public. She indicated the city would eventually try to resurrect the rejected portions of the plan once it received more detailed assurances about privacy.
“We'll bring them back one at a time,” she said. “Unfortunately, the poor little video system gets to be the target.”