The approval of $2 million in federal funding for a citywide surveillance center in Oakland was postponed to July 30 as opposition to the controversial proposal slowly gains public awareness and criticism.

The agenda item first presented in an Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee received little vetting by the some council members when it was heard July 9. It also attracted no public comment that night. However, in the past week the issue has gathered energy as some city advocates question the proposal, they say, may further infringe on their privacy, in addition, to it lacking any guidelines for its use and possible expansion.

At Tuesday’s Oakland City Council meeting, the director of the city’s emergency services, Renee Domingo, said no standard operating procedures currently exist for how the system known as the Domain Awareness Center (DAC) will be employed, if approved by the council. In addition, the city and port are in the process of studying various public records and data retention requirements in relation to the DAC, said Domingo. Later, she added there is doubt whether the DAC will function as a center for data storage since the feeds it will pull in already come from sources with their own retention rules.

The DAC was first approved by the City Council in July 2010 following the allocation of federal stimulus dollars for security at the Port of Oakland. The $2 million outlay before the council this month represents phase two of the program which, according to a city staff report, has ballooned from covering the port to other parts of the city, including street cameras and various other locations, including schools and the Coliseum. Approval would also allow the city and port to seek out other agencies to provide additional video feeds to the DAC, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Caltrans, among others. During the Public Safety Committee meeting last week, staff also indicated plans to partner with other statewide and federal authorities for inclusion in Oakland’s DAC.

Privacy advocates say the DAC’s ability to become a clearinghouse for numerous video feeds from a panoply of government agencies, along with a torrent of data sources, including information and statistics from law enforcement, sets a dangerous precedent in a city beset with a police department, which in the past, has routinely infringed on citizen rights and has paid millions in settlements for their actions.

“[There are] huge opportunities for abuse here, too,” Oakland resident Joshua Daniels said Tuesday night. “We’re talking about giving a surveillance system for the entire city over to, perhaps, the most abusive police force in the country.”

Gwen Winter, another Oakland resident speaking during public comment said, “This has nothing to do with crime. This has nothing to do with terrorism. What you want to do is watch what all the people are doing so they won’t organize.”

Following revelations brought on by Edward Snowden over the federal government’s ability to spy on Americans, Sandy Sanders urged for the council to maintain a delineation between the city’s data and other agencies. “Our data is our data and your data is your data and those should be separate. Do your job in government and protect us.”

A few public speakers took fault with Councilman Dan Kalb’s comments in committee last week when he concluded his statements on the DAC by saying, “sounds good to me.” In response to the public outcry Tuesday night, Kalb said, “This is not a fault or a criticism, but I’ll only say, I wish all the people who were here today were at the public safety committee a week ago. It would have been more helpful.”

The City Council may have been caught flat-footed by the amount of criticism against the DAC Tuesday night. Councilman Larry Reid moved to delay the item to July 30. Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, agreed. Reid asked staff for additional research on the proposal before adding, “Given that we can’t even get our freaking phones working for our police officer…and now we want to add this additional technology when there’s only two to three years for maintenance?” He also criticized the public safety committee for not properly vetting the item.

Councilmember Desley Brooks said the item should have never been placed on Tuesday’s consent calendar. “It was only supposed to go on the consent calendar if it wasn’t controversial and clearly there are people who have a different opinion.

Cross-posted from East Bay Citizen

13 Responses

  1. Jonatton Yeah?

    If there’s one thing I once appreciated but have started to seriously question in the Bay Area is its heavy emphasis upon advocacy as a driver of public policy. Working in public health, specifically HIV/AIDS, I’ve seen countless projects and policies, that have a foundation in sound research, would be beneficial to the majority, and would have public support, totally derailed by a vocal minority whose granular single-mindedness compromises the greater public safety and the greater public good. I have to admit some of this advocacy has benefited me over the years working within a public system, but I can see that it’s incredibly problematic when trying to run a city.

    Everybody has a cause. Policy is always stuck having to put one priority over another. That’s politics. That’s the job. Appeasing the people who just happen to be in the room isn’t doing the job. He who screams loudest ruling the roost is an awful approach to public policy. Dunno what the answer given that the advocacy model is so ingrained within the cultural milieu.

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  2. Benjamin S.

    The city has given no privacy guidelines, data retention limits, told Oakland citizens what agencies the dossier of their day to day lives will be shared with.

    What Jonatton Yeah? (comment above) neglects to point out is that if citizens didn’t push back against bad policy, we would have nothing but bad policy. It is the RESPONSIBILITY of citizens to say to to bad ideas.

    DAC looks like it’s designed to keep tabs on Oakland citizens 24/7. It has no privacy guidelines in place. The city hasn’t shown ANY proof that it is needed or would even help to reduce violent crime (most case studies show that surveillance cameras don’t reduce violent crime). And it would likely be used by OPD to further oppress people of color.

    Sounds like a terrible idea to me. Hopefully the Oakland city council shows some common sense and votes no.

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