Committee vote on police heat sensors signals cooperation between police, privacy activists

Desley Brooks oversees Public Safety meeting

Oakland City Council Member Desley Brooks (District 6) oversees a Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday night. Photo by Lucas Waldron.

The Oakland City Council’s public safety committee voted Tuesday to regulate the storage and use of data collected by police heat sensors in a victory for privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The unanimously approved draft policy will govern the use of data collected by thermal-imaging technology on the Oakland Police Department’s helicopter. The Forward Looking Infrared system, or FLIR, can detect human heat signatures in areas of low visibility, making it a valuable tool for locating and apprehending fleeing suspects.

The proposed regulations mandate that only city employees on a need-to-know basis, such as the helicopter pilot and camera operator, can access FLIR data and only in real time. No information from the device is to be collected, stored or disseminated, unless related to “the immediate apprehension” of a fleeing suspect, such as when location details must be transmitted to officers on the ground. The policy also includes auditing requirements and internal controls.

The city’s police department has been using a similar infrared sensor on its helicopter for years with little public opposition. Deputy Chief of Police David Downing said that the department doesn’t oppose the new rules, in part because it rarely records footage taken by the device.

“We work together with the community,” he told Oakland North in a phone interview before the vote. “What they have is our position.”

At the meeting on Tuesday evening, much of the committee’s discussion centered on clarifying the reasons for the new regulations, which some of them found redundant.

“I don’t understand the need for the [data-retention] policy,” said Councilmember Abel Guillen (District 2), referring to an existing specification from April’s FLIR-procurement resolution, which specified that the device would not be allowed to retain data.

“Under the DAC policy, we had a data-retention section,” said Joe Devries, representing the city administrator’s office, from the podium in response. “I believe the [privacy] committee wanted to enunciate, in this policy, that there would be no retention of data.”

Devries was referencing a special advisory committee on privacy, which drafted the new rules. The city council formed it last year in response to activism against a contentious surveillance facility at the city’s port, known as the Domain Awareness Center, or DAC. The recently passed regulations model those drafted to govern privacy and data-retention there. On June 2, the city council approved regulations on the DAC and a list of recommendations for how to institutionalize data protections going forward.

By approving the new draft policy, lawmakers erred on the side of caution in an atmosphere of heated protest over city surveillance initiatives. Ignited by news of the DAC amid revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden, a vocal citizens’ organization known as the Oakland Privacy Working Group has pushed Oakland to the forefront of privacy protections among America’s cities.

Brian Hofer, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group and chair of the privacy committee, who is the principal architect of the recently passed draft policy, said his committee aims to become permanent and hopes to introduce a citywide ordinance covering all surveillance technology.

“Oakland is a national municipal leader in addressing the privacy impact of surveillance equipment,” he said in an email before Tuesday’s meeting. Seattle passed a limited surveillance ordinance in 2013 and formed a standing privacy committee last year, but so far it has only provided guidance to city agencies.

In 2014, an uproar from Oaklanders stalled construction of the second phase of the DAC, which was also funded by Homeland Security. The center had originally sought to collect feeds from the city’s widespread video camera infrastructure, license plate readers and Shotspotter, Oakland’s gunfire detection system, into a central location for use by law enforcement. The public outcry forced the council to scale down the project and form the ad hoc committee on privacy.

Privacy campaigners see the advisory board’s recent progress as an unambiguous victory. “I think it shows that the conversation around the DAC was not a one-time thing,” said Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization, in a phone interview before the vote. “There’s growing concern about this technology in all forms.”

Two citizens, both in favor of the new rules, addressed the committee Tuesday evening. Brian Geiser, of the Oakland Tenants Union, said he supported the resolution but was upset that the city council had even authorized purchasing the equipment.

“I’m disappointed that you accepted the FLIR,” he told city lawmakers. “Many of us were disappointed with how the approval happened.”

The privacy committee and police both said they worked closely to make sure that the other’s concerns were addressed in the new draft policy. Deputy Chief Downing and Hofer, the civil liberties advocate and advisory committee member, are set to appear on a panel together at the 2015 International Association of Police Chiefs Conference in Chicago.

But Hofer is still wary. The privacy resolutions his committee has drafted only allow for injunctive relief to address potential abuse, an issue that requires negotiation with the city’s public employees unions as well as a binding ordinance by the city council. For the privacy policy to work, he says, it “needs to be made enforceable.”

Comments are closed.