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On Oakland’s Creepy New Surveillance Program

Oakland's director of emergency services, scans a monitoring screen at the Domain Awareness Center. (Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle Renee Domingo)Earlier this week, the Oakland City Council voted to approve the second phase of a $10.9 million surveillance center that would enable the City to engage in widespread warrantless surveillance of Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing whatsoever. This is a terrible blow to privacy.

The so-called Domain Awareness Center (DAC) would consolidate a vast network of surveillance data. The project was initially supposed to be about port security. But in a classic illustration of mission creep, the project as proposed would have pulled in over 1,000 cameras and sensors pointed at Oakland residents, including 700 cameras in Oakland schools. While surveilling schoolchildren is not going to secure the Port of Oakland, it would allow for the comprehensive tracking of innocent Oakland residents. The DAC would enable the city to track individuals when they visit the abortion clinic, the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or the union hall, or engage in other private activities. Although proponents of the project claimed that it did nothing more than consolidate existing surveillance systems, the mere combination of surveillance data is extremely intrusive. A mosaic depicts far more information than any individual tile.

Shockingly, the City Council was poised to approve the project even though there was no privacy framework in place whatsoever. Although the City’s proposed contract with a vendor to build the DAC took pains to prescribe in minute detail the precise manner in which, for example, metal framing systems are to be installed (studs are to be placed not more than 2 inches from abutting walls), there were no privacy provisions addressing key issues such as data retention and dissemination.

Disappointingly, and in the face of enormous opposition, the City Council voted on Tuesday to approve the DAC. The resolution it ultimately adopted requires the City Council to approve privacy policies and specifies which surveillance systems can be included in the DAC (the cameras in Oakland schools are no longer included). While the resolution contains a few nods to privacy, the City Council still put the cart before the horse. The City Council would never have approved a construction project, only to say that they’d review financial costs after the project is built. But it did just that with privacy costs.

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