The Real Purpose of Oakland's Surveillance Center 

City leaders have argued that Oakland needs a massive surveillance system to combat violent crime, but internal documents reveal that city staffers are also focused on tracking political protesters.

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Oakland's citywide surveillance system, the Domain Awareness Center, or DAC, gained national notoriety earlier this year when some city residents voiced strong concerns about the project's privacy and civil rights implications. City officials and supporters of the DAC have responded by contending that objections over privacy and civil rights issues are overblown and that the true purpose of the surveillance center is to help Oakland finally deal with its violent crime problem. But thousands of pages of emails, meeting minutes, and other public documents show that, behind closed doors, city staffers have not been focusing on how the DAC can lower Oakland's violent crime rate.

So what is the real purpose of the massive $10.9 million surveillance system? The records we examined show that the DAC is an open-ended project that would create a surveillance system that could watch the entire city and is designed to easily incorporate new high-tech features in the future. And one of the uses that has piqued the interest of city staffers is the deployment of the DAC to track political protesters and monitor large demonstrations.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, was alarmed when we showed her emails that revealed that the Oakland Police Department has already started using the DAC to keep tabs on people engaged in First Amendment activity. "The fact that the focus so far has been on political protests, rather than the violent crime that's impacting Oakland residents, is troubling, and telling about how the city plans to use the DAC," she said.

"Information is always fundamentally about control," she added. Once it's fully operational, the DAC will give Oakland officials an unprecedented ability to monitor peoples' movements, associations, and activities.

The Domain Awareness Center is being built in stages and will merge OPD's existing license-plate scanners and gunshot detectors with video feeds from hundreds of surveillance cameras — many already in place and some to be installed in the future by several different agencies throughout the city — into a central hub. Oakland police will monitor this "flood of data," as one DAC project presentation called it. Originally limited to monitoring the Port of Oakland, the DAC has since expanded to encompass the entire city.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group, an activist coalition opposed to the DAC, obtained thousands of pages of emails and other public records related to the project from the city via a California Public Records Act request. The privacy group then shared the documents — which cover the period from August 2012 through September 2013 — with us.

While the emails reveal a great deal about the DAC, they are also notable for what they do not talk about. Among the hundreds of messages sent and received by Oakland staffers and the city's contractor team responsible for building the DAC, there is no mention of robberies, shootings, or the 138 homicides that took place during the period of time covered by the records. City staffers do not discuss any studies pertaining to the use of surveillance cameras in combating crime, nor do they discuss how the Domain Awareness System could help OPD with its longstanding problems with solving violent crimes. In more than 3,000 pages of emails, the terms "murder," "homicide," "assault," "robbery," and "theft" are never mentioned.

The records also show that the Oakland City Council's attempt to rein in the features of the DAC that pose the most serious threats to civil liberties, and to craft a privacy and data retention policy, may be too little, too late. City staffers have apparently found a way to work around the intended policies of the council. Moreover, the documents reveal that, behind the scenes, the Oakland Police Department, despite its long and troubling record of violating people's civil rights, is in charge of designing the DAC and the policies that will govern its use.

Furthermore, records show that the DAC already has so-called "video analytic" capabilities. Video analytics include features like automated vehicle and pedestrian tracking, motion recognition, and a "virtual fence" that determines when people approach or attempt to breach fences surrounding Port of Oakland property. The documents also reveal that the DAC contractor, SAIC, now called Leidos Holdings, Inc., over-billed the City of Oakland by upwards of $160,000 by purchasing expensive software and gadgets that SAIC staff kept for themselves, and by filing invoices for work that wasn't done. Several Oakland staffers caught this and deducted the charges, but only after forcing SAIC to exhaustively account for labor, tools, and $94,000 in goods received for which there were no receipts provided.

It's unclear just how much of Oakland will be put under continuous, pervasive surveillance by OPD with the DAC, but internal city records show that plans to incorporate cameras inside Oakland's public schools and Oakland Housing Authority properties are very much alive. So, too, are plans to feed in surveillance footage from hundreds of other cameras already in place around the city through OPD's commercial camera lending program, local transit agencies, and a planned surveillance system the Downtown Oakland Association and the Lake Merritt Uptown District Association business improvement districts intend to build.

And cameras are just the beginning: Documents mention monitoring "social media," "web feeds," and "text messaging."


Large surveillance centers are becoming increasingly common nationwide: They now exist in New York City; Chicago; Baltimore; Washington, DC; and Hudson County, New Jersey. Political leaders typically contend that such centers are necessary to combat terrorist threats and reduce crime.

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