Domain Awareness Center stirs controversy

How Oakland's Domain Awareness Center could work

How Oakland's Domain Awareness Center could work

A surveillance hub being assembled in Oakland could potentially be the largest and most comprehensive citywide surveillance system in California.

The surveillance center, known as the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), is set to go live in July 2014 and will be funded entirely by a $10.9 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Operating out of the Emergency Operations Center on 17th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in downtown Oakland, the DAC 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. The goal is to provide a real time 24/7 hub to monitor and respond to emergencies in the city.

Controversy has followed the proposed surveillance center from the moment it reached City Council for approval over the summer. After appearing first on the consent calendar for “non-controversial” agenda items, public opposition pushed the center’s budget approval onto the full council agenda in July and into the spotlight where it has remained under intense scrutiny ever since.

“The problem we see from within the city is that we have a whole bunch of information silos,” said Ahsan Baig, Interim Director of Information Technology. With the DAC, “now when you bring all this information together, that gives you a fuller picture.”

That fuller picture comes at the expense of civil liberties for Oakland residents, critics counter. At a November 19 City Council meeting, dozens of residents packed the council chambers to protest the center and speak out against a range of concerns including invasion of privacy.

Given Oakland’s historically tumultuous relationship between its citizens and law enforcement, most recently highlighted with the Oscar Grant shooting and Occupy Oakland, it is no surprise there has been pushback from citizens who feel the center may drive a wedge through the community.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group has been organizing against the DAC since the summer, and is looking to build popular resistance to the center. Many civil liberty groups have also voiced their concerns, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“At a time when mass surveillance is getting unprecedented attention, it is unconscionable to push these plans forward without robust participation,” said Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, addressing the Oakland City Council.

Much of the disagreement revolves around exactly how the hub will work. City staff view the DAC, a joint project between the city and the port, as a “situational awareness center” for first responders.  Opponents of the project are calling the DAC a “fusion center”, an information center run in part by the Department of Homeland Security.

Renee Domingo, Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security with the Oakland Fire Department, was quick to point out that the DAC is not a fusion center– there is already a Northern California fusion center located in San Francisco. However, the similarities are striking, as fusion centers are often integrated with local Emergency Operations Centers and collect data from a range of sources, much like the DAC.

The city has yet to develop privacy and data-retention policies for the DAC, and even which exact data sources will be monitored is unclear. The Physical Security Information Management System (PSIMS) operating within the DAC has the capability to integrate hundreds of security camera feeds, but at the moment will use the port’s cameras, the city’s traffic cameras, and cameras from AC Transit, BART, and Caltrans. The city also plans to incorporate private cameras from residents and business owners, but only with permission, Baig noted.

“The net result is the technology is bringing all this together and it’s saving lives,” Baig said. “Because first responders need to make a decision and they will be able to make it fast and quick.”

To complete the final phase, the city is currently soliciting new vendors. After Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) lost the contract, the city must now decide between four of the original contractors who bid on the project: Schneider Electric, Motorola Solutions, G4S, & GTSI Inc.

Oakland resident Joshua Smith, speaking to the city council, expressed concern for the potential for abuse of such a powerful system. “You need to focus on what it can become, not what it is right now.”


  1. Jake G

    This was an informative piece, to get a deeper view at the DAC I’d recommend people read the expose the East Bay Express published based on internal city e-mails uncovered through a California Public Records Act request.

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