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Oakland votes to limit scope of centralized surveillance program

Oakland votes to limit scope of centralized surveillance program

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Oakland's city council has voted to downscale an ambitious and controversial plan to centralize the city's surveillance systems. SFGate reports that that the Domain Awareness Center, which would connect cameras across the city with license plate readers, gunshot-detection devices, and mapping technology, has been restricted to monitoring the Port of Oakland and Oakland International Airport. Under the new policy, 40 city cameras must also be disconnected, and the police gunshot detector cannot be integrated into the center's operations. The move is meant to placate civil liberties advocates, who warned that linking multiple existing systems across the city would effectively create a central surveillance program.

Mayor Jean Quan, who supports the overall goals of the program, said she plans to reconsider some scrapped elements of the Domain Awareness Center. "We'll bring them back one at a time, and I think later we will bring back the systems after we put in the rules for privacy," she told SFGate. She also expressed frustration with what she calls a failure to educate the public, saying the city was blindsided by last year's sudden furor over government surveillance. "I wish I had paid attention to it a little earlier, I really thought it was a no-brainer," she said. "It didn't occur to us, I think it is just the time because people are mad about the [National Security Agency], that it didn't occur to us that a system that would help the existing cameras coordinate in an emergency would become so controversial."

The EFF, ACLU, Oakland Privacy Working Group, and other organizations have all opposed the program, which drew attention in July of 2013 when the city council accepted a $2 million Department of Homeland Security grant to build it. Domain Awareness systems similar to the proposed Oakland one have been rolled out in New York and Boston, and Quan insists that it would be used to connect the dots in an emergency like a terrorist attack or fire, not as an everyday surveillance system. But critics say the city has failed to address questions about how the data would be used and how long it would be retained — among other things, they worry that information could be inappropriately shared with federal agencies like the FBI. Before the vote, the ACLU published a detailed description of the program's shortcomings, citing "grave concerns about the DAC and its enormous potential for abuse."

Update: In a statement, EFF activist Nadia Kayyali expressed ambivalence towards the decision.

While it was good to hear many members of the City Council responding to concerns about racial profiling and privacy, last night's vote was not ideal.

The removal of city cameras, in particular, was a positive change, but the bottom line is that there are still far too many questions surrounding the Domain Awareness Center. The technical capabilities of the DAC, especially how data will be protected, analyzed, and accessed, have still not been fully explained. The financial cost to Oakland is unclear. The privacy policy is non-existent. Finally, the concern that the federal government will have access to the information gathered by the DAC is very real. Neither Council nor staff addressed the fact that Oakland has existing relationships with the FBI and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. With all of these unanswered questions, the best result would have been a no vote and a move to dismantle the DAC. EFF will now be watching the development of the privacy policy and the DAC system itself very closely.