How One U.S. City is Becoming a Surveillance State
“There is no there there,” poet Gertrude Stein once said about the city of her childhood, Oakland. A recent decision made by the Oakland City Council throws a different light on her words: at a routine meeting on July 30, the Oakland City Council unanimously agreed to accept a $2 million federal grant to create a 24-hour “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC) that will in effect create a surveillance system throughout the city by aggregating data from CCTV cameras and other devices.
That is, wherever a resident of Oakland, or anyone who happens to be within the city’s limits, is, his or her movements will be recorded. Wherever you are in the West coast city, “there” will be a surveillance device and every “there” that you are in the city will be tracked.
The ACLU of northern California has informed the City Council that it opposes the plan on the grounds that the system is “intended to collect and store vast amounts of information about Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing,” according to a letter to the city council dated July 24, 2013 (pdf) by ACLU attorney Linda Lye.
Big Brother is Alive and Well in Oakland
Surveillance cameras and thermal imaging devices that are already installed at the Port of Oakland (the fifth-busiest in the U.S. and the third busiest on the West Coast) will be part of the DAC, but these are just the start. Also included will be the Oakland Police Department’s eighteen license plate readers, ShotSpotter gunshot detection devices, CCTV cameras and surveillance cameras at Oakland city schools as well as many more cameras from regional law enforcement agencies such as the California Highway Patrol.
The DAC is, say officials, simply performing an “upgrade” on an existing system. Oakland’s director of emergency services and homeland security, Renee Domingo, said that the system would only be activated “in times of emergency” but that, if preparations including a facility for the DAC are completed in time for June of 2014, “we would be looking to staff the facility on a 24/7 basis.” She also noted that, while the grant from the federal government will cover funding for the first two years, the city of Oakland and the Port of Oakland will be responsible for it afterwards.
All told, the DAC will aggregate more than 1,000 camera feeds. It will be staffed by a sergeant and an analyst from the Oakland Police Department as well as someone from the Port of Oakland.
Privacy Provisions Do Not Yet Exist
As the ACLU points out, the Oakland City Council has voted the surveillance system in place without establishing laws concerning the privacy rights of individual citizens. In contrast, “the City’s contract for the DAC takes pains to describe in minute detail the precise manner in which, for example, metal framing systems are to be installed (studs are to be placed no more than 2 inches from abutting walls),” says Lye’s letter.
At least two dozen people were present at the City Council’s meeting to pass our flyers proclaiming “State Surveillance NO” and to express their concerns about, among much else, Domingo not knowing exactly how many cameras that transportation agencies including BART, AC Transit and Caltrans have within Oakland’s boundaries or on bordering freeways. The Port of Oakland has “130 to 134 cameras, and there are four City of Oakland traffic cameras,” Domingo said.
Oakland is not unique in constructing a “Marine Domain Awareness Center;” other port cities including Long Beach, Los Angeles and Seattle have used federal funds for such. The Oakland DAC was mentioned in the Obama Administration’s 2010 “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
Nonetheless, by deciding to create the DAC, Oakland has “thrust itself into the forefront of the national debate about surveillance and its limits,” comments Ars Technica. Oakland residents and civil liberties advocates have more than rightly questioned the creation of such an extensive surveillance system, and in a city that has been frequently in the news due to incidents involving citizens and its police force (following the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a BART officer, during the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests and, most recently, following the George Zimmerman verdict). Come 2014, anyone one in Oakland won’t have to step far to find their whereabouts under watch.
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