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Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean Oakland Isn't Building a Terrifyingly Orwellian Surveillance Center
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy East Bay Express | December 19, 2013
But it doesn't mean that it wouldn't be a good idea, either.
Well, this probably won't go over too well with those Oakland City Council protestors.
According to a story published in the East Bay Express today, Oakland's Domain Awareness Center, aka that super-scary sounding surveillance center that's got the tinfoil hat crowd in a lather, may be focused more on political protests than it is on crimes like homicide or robbery. The Express gained access to a motherload of documents obtained by an activist group through the California Public Records Act. The Center will combine Oakland Police Department data from license plate scanners and gun shot sensors with video feeds from hundreds of different public and private sources, including cameras at public schools, housing projects, BART and AC Transit, and even business improvement districts. But more troubling, the Center may have been already used to monitor political dissent. During protests related to the Trayvon Martin killing last year, members of the OPD may have monitored marches from the Center.
But if there's a silver lining for civil liberties advocates it is this: The City of Oakland isn't exactly as brutally efficient as, say, North Korea. The Center is plagued with the all kinds of inefficiency: For instance, the contractor over-billed Oakland by $160,000 by pocketing software and devices and filing invoices for work that was not performed. And in internal documents, the Center's staff discusses how to monitor "social media," as if it were any more complicated than signing up for Twitter and following a few Occupiers.
In a way, concerns about the Center are a little overblown. Cities like Baltimore and Chicago have installed similar programs and seen drops in their crime rates. Police in San Francisco tried to set up a similar network of cameras a few years ago. The system didn't work very well, though, because, according to researchers from UC Berkeley, there weren't enough cameras and they weren't being monitored in real time. After the Boston Marathon bombing, Chief of Police Greg Suhr tried to expand video surveillance, going so far as to recently begin having police wear cameras on themselves.
It's not just police who support video surveillance. This kind of surveillance has even garnered some support from the San Francisco Public Defender, Jeff Adachi. He recently told me that he was leery of the technology at first, but changed his mind after video surveillance helped his office beat charges against innocent members of the public. He's seen several cases like the one in 2012 in which a man was acquitted of battery on a Castro merchant after video surveillance evidence revealed that the merchant had attacked the man from behind first.
So while privacy and political repression concerns are very real, many cities around the country seem to have come to a rough equilibrium with cameras. Whether or not Oakland will do the same remains an open question.