Domain Awareness Center moves forward despite vocal opposition

Oakland city administrators look on as residents speak out against the Domain Awareness Center at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Oakland city administrators look on as residents speak out against the Domain Awareness Center at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

On a rainy Tuesday night in a raucous session lasting until after midnight, dozens of residents packed the Oakland City Council chambers to protest the planned Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a joint Oakland city and port security project funded through $10.9 million in Department of Homeland Security grants.

Worried about invasions of privacy, opponents of the DAC hoped to stall the project from going forward. Despite their chants of “Table it!,” however, councilmembers voted 6 to 1 to go forward with the project. Councilmember Lynette McElhaney was the lone “no” vote.

At issue is whether the Domain Awareness Center presents a narrow technological instrument for first responders or an unlimited surveillance tool for law enforcement.  The center would potentially link cameras from around the city with shot spotter gunshot detectors, license plate readers, Geographic Information Systems mapping and social media feeds, among other tools, and provide a real time 24/7 hub to monitor and respond to emergencies in the city.

Similar projects have been implemented in Long Beach, Seattle, and, on a much larger scale, New York City.

Oakland lacks a basic “common operating picture” to provide “situational awareness” to first responders and law enforcement, according to the interim Director of Information Technology Ahsan Baig. The Domain Awareness Center, scheduled to begin operations in July 2014, would “link all the different data sources we have in public safety and will be available [in real time] to our first responders,” he said.

Critics of the project countered that the Domain Awareness Center lacks oversight and privacy on data-retention policies, and is merely a step towards mass surveillance. Around the country, surveillance projects like this have been the “norm for the last five years” according to Matt Kellegrew, legal fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a civil liberties watchdog group. “And the common denominator is expensive technology”.

Despite the city’s claims that the center would be used mainly in emergencies, Kellegrew was skeptical. “If you give them a massive tool, then they’re gonna use it,” he said.

On Tuesday’s agenda, the discussion was whether to award $2 million to a new vendor for Phase 2 of the project. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) completed Phase 1 of the project, but recently lost the contract after officials charged that the company violated the city’s own 1988 law against working with companies that manufacture nuclear weapons.

With the passage of Tuesday’s city council recommendation, the city will now decide between four of the original contractors who bid on the project: Schneider Electric, Motorola Solutions, G4S, & GTSI Inc.

As the council meeting dragged on throughout the night, many residents who originally signed up to speak left. The dwindling numbers left the remaining critics frustrated and more vocal, with the meeting coming to a halt multiple times due to disruptions and yelling between residents and councilmembers.

In the end, the disruptions grew too much for the councilmembers, and Oakland police cleared the chamber just after the final vote.

Many residents cited mistrust between citizens and law enforcement, and voiced frustration that the public has been largely left out of the discussion.

“At a time when mass surveillance is getting unprecedented attention, it is unconscionable to push these plans forward without robust participation,” said Parker Higgins, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, while addressing the council.

“This is not over,” said Councilmember Libby Schaaf, before voting to approve the measure. “Because you’ve come here and you’ve raised these issues, it is making us smarter and better around privacy issues.”

Literature handed out by critics urged city officials to focus on local solutions, saying: “Let’s put funding into bettering our ability to solve problems in and by our own communities rather than accepting grants to become a test case for federal surveillance.”

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