Defender of a Free Society: Brian Hofer

Brian Hofer was just a normal guy — an “unaffiliated private citizen” is how he describes himself — when he learned, two years ago, about a plan to assemble a massive city-wide surveillance system in Oakland.

The so-called Domain Awareness Center’s ambitious specs talked of linking-up hundreds of spy cameras, microphones, and other sensors into a single hub where the police could track vehicles as they traversed the city, and identify people with facial recognition software as they walked down the sidewalk, all in real-time. Ominously, city officials talked about using the DAC to watch over protests as well as conduct criminal investigations. There was no talk of limits. Zero discussion of protecting civil liberties.

Hofer was alarmed. He started attending meetings of the newly formed Oakland Privacy Working Group. “We weren’t the ACLU,” he says. “We were just a rag-tag bunch that showed up to change our government.”

In two years, Hofer and the rest of Oakland Privacy, as the group is now called, have managed to expose multiple hush-hush efforts by regional police agencies to obtain powerful surveillance tools. They’ve educated city and county leaders across the Bay Area about the threats of government and corporate surveillance. And they’ve succeeded in passing landmark legislation to create civilian oversight of surveillance tools employed by local governments.

“We have thousands of years of history to show us that never once has mass surveillance not been used in a destructive way,” Hofer said. “There’s not a case in which a police state didn’t use its technology to control the population.”

According to Hofer, when people are constantly under the gaze of cameras, when their cell-phone data is continuously harvested and analyzed by telecom companies and governments, when surveillance becomes ubiquitous, the creativity that advances a society dries up. “We stop dissenting, challenging, creating new ideas,” Hofer said. He calls surveillance a “chilling” force that inhibits democratic progress.

Since helping to reign in Oakland’s DAC, Hofer has been instrumental in the creation of a privacy commission, one of the first citizen oversight board in the nation that will have policy-making powers to determine whether, when, and how Oakland can use surveillance tools. Hofer also helped the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors adopt a global surveillance equipment ordinance. “It totally reverses what was previously happening,” says Hofer. “Now you don’t acquire surveillance tools until you have policies in place governing how they can be used.”

Next up for Hofer and the rag-tag Oakland Privacy crew is an effort to help BART reign in surveillance programs. Berkeley, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and other local governments are also considering putting civilians in control.

“I think what’s important is that this is happening here in the Bay Area, because it’s this region that is creating a lot of the technology, the products come out of Silicon Valley.”

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