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"Inside Urban Shield"  (Photo: Daniel Arauz/flickr/cc)

Community to Lawmakers: Stop the Showcase of Military and Surveillance Technology in Alameda County

Disturbing displays of military and surveillance equipment being used by state and local police have become commonplace. So it’s not hard to imagine why Urban Shield, a four-day long “preparedness” exercise and equipment exhibition coordinated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, was asked not to return to Oakland last year after community opposition.

But the Stop Urban Shield coalition wants more. They want the event cancelled entirely.

They say Urban Shield “brings together local, regional, and international police-military units to collaborate on and profit from new forms of surveillance.” They’ve also pointed out that “ Local police departments are now directly funded and trained by the Department of Homeland Security and many receive military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense.” The event includes law enforcement agencies from around the world, and in the past has included activities such as a simulated hostage situation or terrorist threat.

It also acts as a marketplace for the kind of technology grassroots activists are especially concerned about. In addition to myriad arms dealers, the exhibition includes:

Residents in Alameda County are very engaged in local government, and haven’t hesitated to spend long hours at city and county council meetings telling lawmakers that they don’t want surveillance and military equipment on their streets.  Unfortunately, they’ve had a lot of opportunities to do so:

  • The Alameda County Sheriff purchased a drone using his own funds after he couldn’t get a grant to purchase one approved by the Board of Supervisors due to community pressure.
  • The Oakland City Council approved a contract for a “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC) in 2014 without any public discussion. The DAC would have brought together data from a variety of sources, including Shotspotter, traffic cameras, and more. When the DAC plan did become public, residents pushed back hard. The DAC ended up going forward in a limited fashion, with a privacy policy.
  • The Oakland Police Department uses Automated License Plate Readers  (ALPRs). Looking at a heat map of where they use them, it becomes clear that ALPR use is disproportionately higher in lower-income neighborhoods. Oakland isn’t alone—Most cities in Alameda County—and in the 9-county Bay Area—use ALPRs.

Grassroots activism is making a difference. Urban Shield can’t happen in Oakland anymore, the Sheriff had to use his own money to purchase a drone, the Domain Awareness Center was scaled back to the Port of Oakland only, and Oakland’s Public Safety Committee will be voting on a FLIR privacy policy next week.

The Stop Urban Shield coalition is asking city and county agencies to end their participation in the event entirely, and they’ve organized a demonstration for September 11, the first day of the event. Their coordination around this event serves as a reminder: while surveillance and militarization are a huge problem, they aren’t insurmountable.

If you’re concerned about the use of surveillance technology in your own community, check out EFF’s new Street Level Surveillance Project. We have resources for activists, including a way to easily file a public records act request about biometrics, and talking points about ALPRs.


Nadia Kayyali

Nadia Kayyali is a member of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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