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Oakland's Privacy Commission Could Lead Nation on Surveillance Oversight

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Demonstrators protest in February 2015 against Oakland's plans for a citywide surveillance center. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Oakland's history of distrust between social justice activists and government, along with the city's proximity to Silicon Valley, make it a prime candidate to create one of the most active privacy oversight panels in the country.

The Oakland City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday to create the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission this year. The nine-member panel will be responsible for writing the city's new privacy and data storage law and for helping to guide city policies related to surveillance equipment and new technologies.

The push for such a commission began in 2008, when the Port of Oakland received an infrastructure grant to secure it from acts of terrorism. The grant helped develop the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), which was meant to be a surveillance hub to host and analyze data collected by technologies like cameras, license plate readers and gunshot detectors.

The center was first described as a port-only project, including Oakland International Airport. At some later point, it became a joint citywide project. In 2013, city staffers told the City Council the DAC was to be staffed 24 hours a day and include law enforcement, the fire department, the port and emergency management services.

Around this time, some National Security Agency documents provided by former CIA employee Edward Snowden were published, detailing U.S. government surveillance. The revelations ignited a huge conversation about privacy and data.


“That’s when the public sits up and finally takes notice,” said Brian Hofer of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, formed in opposition to the surveillance center.

Extending the project citywide meant that certain surveillance technology around the city would feed into the DAC. That didn’t sit well with privacy advocates like Hofer, who were never clear on the city's true intentions.

Brian Hofer co-chaired the city's ad hoc privacy committee.
Brian Hofer co-chaired the city's ad hoc privacy committee. (Courtesy of Brian Hofer)

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said.

Renee Domingo, who has since retired from the Office of Emergency Management Services, under the fire department, had told the council that the center would be used for "day-to-day emergencies, crimes, as well as major disasters."

While some focus would be related to terrorism, "we are using it as a multi-hazards system that will also allow us to more effectively respond to wide and large-spread fires, such as wildland fires up in the Oakland hills, to a major earthquake in the city of Oakland, because we would have better situational awareness, and to integrate disparate systems that currently don't talk to each other so we could have a full view and a full picture of what's going on in a  major event," Domingo said.

The center was never listed as a potential spying tool for law enforcement, but that's how privacy advocates felt after Hofer's group examined city emails in 2013 that showed “a major reason for building the new system” was political protests, according to the East Bay Express.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group and others prevented the DAC from going citywide in March 2014, when the City Council voted to restrict the project to just the port.

“They just took the city out of it,” said Hofer. “They removed the alarming civil liberties parts -- the facial recognition software and license plate readers and the data and the cameras.”

As part of that vote, the council also created an ad hoc committee to write a privacy and data retention policy for the city. The process took roughly a year, in part because there aren’t many examples of privacy policies around the country.

“There was just nothing out there,” Hofer said.

The policy that was created over a year was passed last June. It restricted the use of the DAC, allowing its activation only during certain emergencies, like fires, earthquakes, trail derailments, bomb threats or active shooters.

Even that didn't go far enough, said Hofer. The committee quickly realized there needed to be something in place to regulate other surveillance equipment and technologies, he said.

Now that the City Council has OK'd the creation of the privacy commission, council members will make their own recommendations for mayoral approval.

“It’s really exciting,” said Catherine Crump, an assistant clinical professor at UC Berkeley's law school, who has been following Oakland’s story.

“It’s an example of a community trying to grasp hold of how technology is changing, and actually exert some control over the degree which people are going to be subject to surveillance and then in what ways,” she said.

Oakland is also in a unique position because it has a city council that has been responsive to privacy advocates’ concerns.

“Oakland has the capacity to really be a model here,” she said.

Seattle is another city that has formed a privacy policy, along with an advisory body working on developing best practices within government agencies. But Oakland’s model spells out more clearly the active role the commission will play in any future privacy policy decisions that may need to be made.

And the commission will likely play a large role in future decision-making.

The federal government is spending a lot of money getting surveillance equipment to local governments. Crump believes this could erode democratic control over policing, she said.

“What it means is that police departments don’t have to depend on city councils to get funding for surveillance technologies. They have a direct line to the federal government,” said Crump.

That’s how Oakland’s DAC project was funded.

While many people aren’t necessarily opposed to using surveillance technology (although many are opposed to any type of DAC system), they do want to make sure that it is used in a responsible way, she said.

That power of surveillance can be abused by individuals or institutions, Crump said.

It won’t be too much of a surprise to Hofer if Oakland tries to expand surveillance throughout the city, he said. But for now the DAC has been restricted. And since the city adopted its privacy policy in June, he is not aware of any time it has been used.


“It just sits dark,” he said.

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