Confronting a Mass Surveillance Hub in Oakland

Ienna Dela Torre, Law for the People Intern

On February 21st, 2014, the NLG SF Bay Area chapter co-hosted “Spied Upon: Surveillance & Resistance,” an event focusing on the growing problem of national surveillance. The panel, moderated by NLG member and Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Nadia Kayyali, featured filmmaker Jason Kirkpatrick, civil rights attorney and NLG member Zahra Billoo, and Black Panther and SF8 member Richard Brown. The discussion also included representatives from the Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee, the Bay Area Coalition to Stop Political Repression, Legal Workers of the NLG, and the Oakland Privacy Working Group.

February 4, 2014 at Oscar Grant Plaza. Photo by Daniel Arauz.

As Kirkpatrick shared clips of his upcoming film Spied Upon, a documentary about one of Europe’s biggest surveillance scandals, Brown recounted his experience with surveillance during his time with the Black Panther party. Billoo also spoke to the impact of surveillance upon the Muslim community. All in all, the evening revolved around supporting communities being targeted by law enforcement and surveillance – a theme especially heightened after the NSA scandal of summer 2013.

On June 5, 2013, The Guardian published the first of many leaks regarding the unlawful activities of the United States’ National Security Agency. The government defense department began shifting its policies on domestic spying in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, creating new systems to deal with the flood of new information technology – primarily concerning the Internet and cell phones. Since then, numerous media sources have continuously documented the existence of such classified surveillance programs, working with NSA leaker Edward Snowden to inform the general public of these invasive surveillance systems’ functions. The reveal of electronic data mining program PRISM thus prompted a national debate on the issue of mass surveillance as either a “necessity” in the name of national security, or merely an infringement of First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Hitting even closer to home, the city and port of Oakland now deals with a mass surveillance system of its own – the Domain Awareness Center. The project was first initiated in 2008 to secure the port of Oakland from maritime terrorist attacks, but has since then progressed into a massive reservoir for data and full-scale surveillance center for the entire city. The DAC is a surveillance hub that intends to integrate both public and private cameras and sensors into one “centralized system for decision support to appropriately respond to city-port incidents,” as noted in the DAC’s Mission statement.

The DAC will incorporate video feeds and other real time data networks from a number of sources in the Oakland area to supposedly “improve” the response time and coordination of support teams. Possible program components include the integration of 700 cameras in Oakland public schools, as well as an additional 135 cameras surrounding the Oakland Coliseum. Though funding comes primarily from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, phases I and II of the DAC will be implemented by private military contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

On July 30, 2013, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a $2 million grant for phase II of the DAC, ultimately sealing the fate of Oakland residents against this new wave of digital spying. This phase not only aggregates video feeds, but other intrusive technologies such as license plate recognition software, biometrics, thermal imaging and facial recognition software without any privacy guidelines. On November 19, 2013, phase II officially commenced after passing the Oakland Public Safety Committee vote on November 12th. Currently, the DAC still continues to be constructed; at the most recent city council meeting on March 4th, the council voted with a slim margin to proceed building the center with private contractor Schneider Electric.

Though framed as a move in the right direction for providing immediate support or a step towards decreasing crime rates, the implications of mass surveillance are overreaching and posit more harm than benefits for Oakland residents. The DAC puts First Amendment rights at risk, producing a “chilling effect” on civic engagement. Invasive monitoring systems dissuade citizens from participating in political groups or actions, fully aware that they could be targeted and reprimanded for expressing their political beliefs – the very right reserved to citizens in the First Amendment. These surveillance systems only allow the government to stifle the growth of politically active communities and free discourse in the public sphere.

Related to this, the DAC also infringes upon Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by profoundly diminishing individuals’ expectations of privacy. Not only are Oakland residents’ Internet activities and phone calls tracked by the NSA – soon, their physical whereabouts and other private actions will also be monitored by the DAC.

The NLG has challenged the construction of the DAC, and on March 4th, released a letter to the Oakland City Council, noting that “the aggregation of data on communities of color will be used to justify the use of force and violence in those areas in the guise of of ‘creating safe communities.’” Groups that still suffer from police brutality and racial profiling now have more to fear from a surveillance hub geared to track each individual’s moves in the outside world. Rather than deepening the divide between and treating communities of color as sources of trouble, the NLG has called the city to focus its efforts on assisting these impoverished communities and provide ways to heal from such harsh policing codes.

“The presence of the DAC and increased surveillance that will come with it, will result in more fear, more hyper vigilance and therefore more trauma and more violence in communities of color, and discourage dissent and the voices of the politically disempowered in political discourse,” writes the NLG. “Simply put, the presence of the DAC will not result in community healing. Instead, it will result in community killing.”