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Transparency over secrecy: Oakland’s surveillance policy

Image by Flickr user Daniel Arauz, with Creative Commons license. This photo was resized and cropped.
Image source: http://bit.ly/1HrwNXD


EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article contained errors that have been corrected, below:

* We stated that Brian Hofer had been working for a decade to scale back Oakland's Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The public became aware of the DAC in 2013, and Hofer began his work on the DAC in January of 2014.

* We were not clear on the status of a proposed ordinance regarding surveillance equipment regulation in Oakland. According to Hofer, "The ordinance creating a standing privacy committee will be heard at Oakland Public Safety on December 15. As its first enumerated task, the standing committee will create that surveillance equipment ordinance. So the equipment ordinance likely won't be presented to Council until spring or summer 2016."

* We failed to note that the Oakland Police Department has updated its policy to only hold data gathered from License Plate Readers for six months.


Privacy in public? 

Cyrus Farivar opens up a database on his computer that has over 4.3 million records of license plate numbers. He’s a tech journalist, and the data has been captured by a license plate reader used by the Oakland Police Department.

The info includes the time, date and a precise GPS stamp for each plate.

“Here’s 8th Street at Adeline in West Oakland,” says Farivar, “captured 201 times between January 1st, 2011 and May 20th, 2014. I bet if you were to go to this location you would find this car.”

Curious if I’ve been recorded, I ask Cyrus to look up my plate.


“We have no reads,” he says. “We were talking about reasonable expectation of privacy in public? The police would say they have the ability to do this because you’re driving down a public road.”

Farivar is concerned that OPD’s license plate database could be a violation of Oakland residents' rights to privacy. He has reported that the OPD holds numbers gathered from license plate readers for six months, in part because the data takes up so much storage space.

The Wild West

“Oakland has no policies, no regulations, on their surveillance equipment,” says Brian Hofer, a privacy rights activist and advisor to the city. “It really was the Wild West, and the potential for abuse was pretty large.”

Hofer has worked for almost two years to scale back Oakland’s proposed Domain Awareness Center, or DAC – which is a kind of spy hub that would centralize data from license plate readers, social media feeds, facial recognition technology, cameras located all over the city – and more. 

“It was all going to be aggregated into one data center that had 300 terabytes of storage,” he says, “so we saw it as a pretty big civil liberties risk.” To put this in perspective, that’s more than 35,000 hours of video. 

Last March, the Oakland City Council restricted its scope: Now the DAC can only be used in the Port of Oakland. And this June, the City Council decreed it can only be used during certain scenarios - like a hostage situation or the takeover of a ship. While the DAC is now ready for use, Hofer says there is no one staffing the DAC right now. 

“It’s only going to be activated as needed," says Hofer. "We don’t have natural disasters, really, so for one or two big protests they will activate it, but that has to be at the port."

Protestors, and the police, online

Protests at the port will be monitored by the DAC – but it’s a different story for the rest of Oakland. Last December, protesters rallying against police brutality shut down freeways around the city. NouraKhouri was one of the organizers, tweeting calls to action, including one in particular.

“The tweet in question was basically that we were dreaming of shutting down the freeways, the ports, the city centers and everything that we could to make a statement,” says Khouri. 

A few months later, through a public records request, she learned that the California Highway Patrol had marked her tweet as suspicious and was following her online. 

“It was really scary when I found out and I kind of went back and tried to reflect on what I wrote and it wasn't anything that was stark or out of the norm,” says Khouri. “I mean, I thought it was completely harmless, honestly.”

OPD Deputy Chief David Downing views it in a different light.


“It’s just so free and so available out there as far as what’s posted on the internet,” he says. “All I need is really an internet connection and Google and that’s pretty much it. 

Downing says OPD tracked the Black Lives Matter movement on social media.


“We want to know what some folks are going to do as far as maybe a protest is concerned,” he says, “because it’s our job to make sure that they get to protest.”

But some would argue, they monitor protests to contain and limit protesters. In September, the FBI upgraded its software to monitor the nation’s Twitter and Facebook accounts

Stingray secrets

Brian Hofer has been working to craft an ordinance for consideration by the Oakland City Council.

“With a surveillance equipment ordinance, any of the existing equipment that Oakland might already have or any that is soon to come out will have to go through the vetting process,” says Hofer.  

Hofer says the big focus of the ordinance is not going to be social media equipment. Right now, it’s for technology like the Hailstorm, which can record texts and phone calls.

“Have you ever talked to a doctor or a medical professional on a cell phone? Have you ever talked with an attorney on a cell phone?,” asks Hofer, “The signal can penetrate walls so if your doctor, your attorney, someone you have a private privileged communication with, is inside a building, it doesn't matter. That communication can be intercepted. It’s kind of scary.”

It’s the next level of something called a Stingray, which acts like a cell phone tower to fool phone signals. OPD already has the technology, though Deputy Chief David Downing doesn’t have much to say about it. 

“I’ve heard of Stingray,” says Downing, “but I’m not going to be able to talk with you about that particular issue today.”

But many others in Oakland are working to make Stingrays less secret, more transparent. Tracey Rosenberg, the Director of Media Alliance, is one such person who is outspoken on the issue. I met up with her outside the Alameda Courthouse, after another of many recent public hearings on surveillance.

“My honest-to-God feeling is that if every municipality all over California starts holding hearings about Stingrays, the conversations going to change, because that's what hasn't happened – it’s all been underground,” says Rosenberg. “And it’s been underground for a reason, because if people understood it, they would freak out. So we’re going to cause this massive statewide freak out and over time I think it’s going to have the impact of these becoming unpopular.”

Some believe surveillance serves public safety; others call it an invasion of privacy. For most, the truth is somewhere in between. Oakland is figuring that out, by opening the discussion between the watchers and those who are being watched themselves.