Oakland Activists Unite To Protect Privacy

An enormous ‘domain awareness center’ would have integrated cameras and data from across the city into one mass surveillance system.

Thomas Hintze

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (D) supported restricting the scope of the domain awareness center to the Port of Oakland—either a compromise or a concession, depending whom you ask. (Bike East Bay/Flickr/Creative Commons)

With liber — ty and just — ice for all,” said the girl at the micro­phone. She accen­tu­at­ed the ends of her words, almost as if she were per­form­ing slam poet­ry, so the mem­bers of the city coun­cil had more time to con­tem­plate their mean­ing and grav­i­ty. After a short pause, she recalled how she had recit­ed the Pledge of Alle­giance every morn­ing in school dur­ing her childhood.

The plan also called for the implementation of new technologies such as license-plate-reading devices, biometrics, thermal imaging and possibly facial-recognition technology.

I nev­er thought all that time I would be prac­tic­ing to remind you all here, tonight,” she mused.

Her tes­ti­mo­ny fell some­where in the mid­dle of the pub­lic com­ments por­tion of the Oak­land City Coun­cil meet­ing ear­li­er this month. It was far from a rou­tine meet­ing. Lat­er that night, the coun­cil was to vote on the plan to build a domain aware­ness cen­ter, a mas­sive sur­veil­lance hub that would aggre­gate the pub­lic and pri­vate feeds from cam­eras and sen­sors from across the city, as well as data and updates from social media.

That night, some 149 peo­ple had signed up to speak. Through­out the eight-hour meet­ing, the air was elec­tric and expec­tant as more than one hun­dred peo­ple voiced their unan­i­mous resolve to keep mass sur­veil­lance out of Oakland.

A nine-month fight

The most recent chap­ter of the fight began on July 30, 2013, when the Oak­land City Coun­cil unan­i­mous­ly approved a $2 mil­lion grant from the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty to begin the sec­ond phase of con­struc­tion for a domain aware­ness cen­ter in Oak­land. The vote occurred despite out­spo­ken com­mu­ni­ty oppo­si­tion, the dis­sent­ing tes­ti­monies of near­ly 50 speak­ers and the urg­ing of orga­ni­za­tions like the ACLU. The plan called for the domain aware­ness cen­ter to inte­grate cam­eras and data from across the city into one mass sur­veil­lance sys­tem. Accord­ing to the domain aware­ness cen­ter wiki, a clear­ing­house of infor­ma­tion kept by activists, the plan also called for the imple­men­ta­tion of new tech­nolo­gies such as license-plate-read­ing devices, bio­met­rics, ther­mal imag­ing and pos­si­bly facial-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy. Pri­or to vehe­ment protests, the plan also called for the pur­chase of drones and a net­work of cam­eras for the Oak­land city pub­lic schools.

After the coun­cil approved the domain center’s con­struc­tion, Oak­land activists launched a mil­i­tant research strat­e­gy and a pub­lic rela­tions blitz that quick­ly yield­ed results. By mid-Octo­ber, the plan had made nation­al head­lines, includ­ing a New York Times arti­cle that sharply crit­i­cized the pro­posed cen­ter. In Novem­ber, an even big­ger sto­ry broke. Pub­lic records requests filed by activists yield­ed more than 4,000 pages of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, some of which showed that the con­trac­tor respon­si­ble for the center’s con­struc­tion, Sci­ence Appli­ca­tions Inter­na­tion­al Cor­po­ra­tion, was in vio­la­tion of a city law stip­u­lat­ing that Oak­land can’t do busi­ness with firms that also work with nuclear weapons. These doc­u­ments also revealed that the city appears to have know­ing­ly con­cealed this information.

On Jan. 27, 2014, the Oak­land pri­va­cy work­ing group, a group of pri­va­cy activists loose­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Occu­py Oak­land, issued a cease and desist order to the city to halt Sci­ence Appli­ca­tions Inter­na­tion­al Corporation’s con­struc­tion of the cen­ter. The next day, the city of Oakland’s pub­lic safe­ty com­mit­tee expe­dit­ed its rec­om­men­da­tion that anoth­er con­trac­tor, Schnei­der Elec­tric, appear before the city council.

Two major protests in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary kept the issue at the fore­front of the public’s atten­tion. At a Feb. 18 coun­cil meet­ing, near­ly 80 com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers signed up to speak out against the cen­ter. It was the first time since this nine-month fight began that coun­cil mem­bers indi­cat­ed seri­ous mis­giv­ings about mov­ing for­ward. Some coun­cil mem­bers indi­cat­ed that they would be only will­ing to sup­port a scaled-back ver­sion of the plan that would be lim­it­ed to mon­i­tor­ing the city’s port. Coun­cil mem­bers also expressed con­fu­sion over how the pro­posed domain aware­ness cen­ter had evolved from being lim­it­ed to the port to offer­ing blan­ket mass sur­veil­lance of the entire city. After five hours of debate, the vote was post­poned until the fol­low­ing meet­ing on March 4.

A bal­loon­ing issue

On the night of the March 4 vote, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and orga­ni­za­tions from all dif­fer­ent back­grounds flood­ed into the city coun­cil build­ing. The ACLU and oth­er pro-pri­va­cy orga­ni­za­tions were joined by Mus­lim and Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty groups, whose past and recent expe­ri­ence of being tar­get­ed for sur­veil­lance drove them to oppose this new, inte­grat­ed form. The Oak­land pri­va­cy work­ing group issued a let­ter to coun­cil mem­bers with the sig­na­tures of over 35 orga­ni­za­tions.

The longer this fight goes on, the more broad this coali­tion gets,” said Bri­an Hofer of Oak­land Pri­va­cy Work­ing Group.

Trust has been bro­ken with the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty,” said Imam Zaid Shakir of the Light­house Mosque at a press con­fer­ence pri­or the city coun­cil meet­ing. But, he con­tin­ued, the cen­ter was not a Mus­lim issue, but an Amer­i­can issue.”

Just before the meet­ing, May­or Jean Quan quick­ly issued an open let­ter of sup­port for con­strict­ing the domain aware­ness cen­ter to the port only, which would lim­it the scope of the sur­veil­lance and data col­lec­tion to the area around the port and the air­port, and would call for sur­veil­lance cam­eras already installed as part of the orig­i­nal plan to be decommissioned.

As we’ve gone through our pub­lic process over the last sev­er­al weeks, many of our res­i­dents and oth­er Oak­land stake­hold­ers have let us know they have seri­ous con­cerns about how the cen­ter could affect their rights to pri­va­cy,” Quan said. Let’s be very clear: pre­serv­ing pub­lic safe­ty also means safe­guard­ing those rights.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the sur­veil­lance indus­try has been grow­ing expo­nen­tial­ly. Accord­ing to TomDis­patch writ­ers Mat­tea Kramer and Chris Hell­man, the Unit­ed States has spent an esti­mat­ed $791 bil­lion on home­land secu­ri­ty since the attacks, which — when adjust­ed for infla­tion — is more than 1.5 times the amount spent on the New Deal.

How­ev­er, with­in the last year, the resis­tance to this sur­veil­lance sys­tem has grown as well. In August 2013, now famous whistle­blow­er Edward Snow­den leaked doc­u­ments that revealed U.S. secu­ri­ty agen­cies were spend­ing $52.6 bil­lion each year on intel­li­gence gath­er­ing that includ­ed the con­tro­ver­sial tele­phone meta­da­ta gath­er­ing and stor­ing pro­grams. Even pro-sur­veil­lance law­mak­ers have recent­ly expressed con­cern over the ever expand­ing spy­ing indus­try. Ear­li­er this month Sen. Dianne Fein­stein of Cal­i­for­nia accused the CIA of spy­ing on the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, the very body respon­si­ble for over­see­ing the activ­i­ties of U.S. sur­veil­lance agencies.

Against this back­drop, munic­i­pal strug­gles over mass sur­veil­lance take on increased sig­nif­i­cance. As it becomes more and more clear that these agen­cies are waste­ful­ly over­fund­ed, as a bipar­ti­san 2012 report on fusion cen­ters found, com­mu­ni­ties must decide whether to stand up for their civ­il lib­er­ties when elect­ed offi­cials are no longer able to advo­cate for them.

This is pre­cise­ly what is hap­pen­ing in Oakland.

The vote

On March 4, for­mer city coun­cil mem­ber Wil­son Riles, Jr. was the first pub­lic speak­er to chime in on the pro­posed domain aware­ness cen­ter. A long­time activist, Riles recalled when the city of Oak­land pur­chased a heli­copter for the Oak­land Police Depart­ment dur­ing his city coun­cil tenure. He and oth­er coun­cil mem­bers were tak­en up in the air dur­ing a demon­stra­tion. But instead of car­ry­ing out police work, he remem­bered the pilots of the air­craft shin­ing their spot­lights on women walk­ing down the street and laughing.

Riles was the first of a slew of peo­ple to advo­cate against the center’s con­struc­tion. Lin­da Lye of the ACLU of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia point­ed out that there was an omi­nous pro­vi­sion that referred to the mon­i­tor­ing of news feeds and alerts.” Jor­dan Hoff­man, a secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­al, argued that the cen­ter would get hacked. Michael Thomas, a lawyer with the Nation­al Lawyers Guild, argued, Data aggre­gat­ed on com­mu­ni­ties of col­or will be used to jus­ti­fy force.” One masked activist sim­ply read a pas­sage from Michel Foucault’s Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.

After more than 100 speak­ers, the city coun­cil and May­or Quan vot­ed to restrict the domain aware­ness cen­ter to mon­i­tor­ing the port and the air­port only. Depend­ing on whom you ask, the deci­sion was either a major vic­to­ry or a colos­sal failure.

Bri­an Hofer said that while he was pleased to see the cen­ter lim­it­ed, he was dis­ap­point­ed that it wasn’t defeat­ed out­right. The ACLU was more opti­mistic. Last night’s vote by the Oak­land City Coun­cil to sig­nif­i­cant­ly cur­tail the scope of the domain aware­ness cen­ter is a real win for pri­va­cy and civ­il lib­er­ties and for par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy,” said Lin­da Lye, staff attor­ney with the ACLU of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She cred­it­ed the city coun­cil for respond­ing — at least par­tial­ly — to the public’s concerns.

Lessons learned

Keep­ing the cen­ter con­fined to the port sets an impor­tant prece­dent for pri­va­cy advo­cates every­where, even if it wasn’t the shutout vic­to­ry many want­ed. There was no sin­gle strat­e­gy that was respon­si­ble for forc­ing the city coun­cil to com­pro­mise. Rather, it was a com­bi­na­tion of legal orga­niz­ing, research, out­reach, coali­tion build­ing and street protests. Com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing also played an impor­tant role by bring­ing speak­ers from key sec­tors of soci­ety out for the vote. This orga­niz­ing fol­lowed a decen­tral­ized mod­el in which orga­niz­ers already in com­mu­ni­ties helped bring out their con­stituen­cies, which helped ensure that peo­ple were not tok­enized. This mod­el also did not require activists who had spear­head­ed oth­er aspects of the cam­paign, such as the legal and research advo­ca­cy, to attempt the dif­fi­cult — and often unsuc­cess­ful — work of orga­niz­ing an unfa­mil­iar com­mu­ni­ty from the ground up.

As oth­er cities begin gear­ing up for sim­i­lar fights, like the one now under­way in Seat­tle, activists in Oak­land have vowed to keep push­ing to rid the city of any domain aware­ness cen­ter. Key orga­niz­ers have said that they will begin orga­niz­ing to vote pro-cen­ter coun­cil mem­bers out of office in order to block the now approved port-only cen­ter. This mil­i­tant stance — one that demands no sur­veil­lance and accepts no com­pro­mis­es — may be a source of dis­ap­point­ment for activists in the East Bay now. But it is pre­cise­ly this atti­tude that pro­pelled them from defeat only nine months ago to a vic­to­ry that may well extend even further.

This piece is reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

Tom Hintze is an activist, writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er from New York. He start­ed work­ing in the Occu­py Wall Street Kitchen in Lib­er­ty Square in Octo­ber, orga­niz­ing hor­i­zon­tal­ly with a small group of peo­ple to coor­di­nate meals for between one and five thou­sand peo­ple dai­ly. He has also been a part of the Direct Action Work­ing Group at OWS, and has helped plan dozens of actions. He has writ­ten and edit­ed for Tidal and Occu­py Theory.
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