For the past year, we’ve been waiting for Oakland’s political leaders to make a convincing argument as to why the city needs a large and expensive surveillance center. For a time, city leadership argued that the so-called Domain Awareness Center, also known as the DAC, would help the Oakland Police Department fight crime. But as the Express has noted, there is no concrete evidence that a system of networked surveillance cameras and license-plate readers has reduced crime substantially in other cities.
Moreover, there are serious questions as to whether the DAC will trample on citizens’ constitutional rights. The center would enable police to keep tabs on people’s movements and create dossiers of their actions without a warrant — even when they’re not breaking the law. In fact, as we have reported, internal city emails revealed last year that Oakland City Hall staffers appear to be more interested in using the DAC to track First Amendment activity, like political protests, than fighting crime.
And even if the DAC could end up helping OPD make a small dent in the city’s crime problems, it’s not worth the $10.9 million it will cost to complete it. The federal government has agreed to pay for these startup costs, but that doesn’t make the DAC a good use of taxpayer funds. Oakland, like other US cities, has many needs more pressing than creating a Big Brother apparatus. Plus, Oakland may have to pay some, if not all, of the center’s estimated $1.2 million in annual operating costs at a time when the city can’t even afford to hire enough crime evidence technicians.
In short, the DAC is an expensive boondoggle, and it’s potentially dangerous. As such, it’s time that Mayor Jean Quan and the city council pull the plug on it.
Supporters of the DAC have contended that opponents’ objections are unreasonable, and that the center won’t be abused. But such arguments put forth about sweeping surveillance programs are unconvincing — whether they’re proffered by local politicians or by President Obama, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, and other backers of NSA spying. Every week, it seems, there’s a new and startling revelation about the National Security Agency that tops the one before. On Monday, we learned that the NSA has been using smartphone games like Angry Birds and the popular mobile apps of companies including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and LinkedIn to gather personal data from people’s phones.
It’s not hard to imagine that the NSA and other federal agencies will want to tap into data collected by Oakland’s DAC at some point as well. After all, the feds are paying to build it.
Perhaps what is most troubling, though, is that the elected leaders of a liberal city like Oakland are willingly going along with the creation of the new surveillance state. The East Bay was once the epicenter of progressive political activism, including the Free Speech Movement, which started at UC Berkeley, and the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland. And no one knows that better than Mayor Quan — a former 1960s radical who once battled on the Cal campus for students’ rights. Yet Quan has been silent about the DAC, and has allowed City Administrator Deanna Santana and her staffers to push blindly forward with the controversial surveillance program — as the city council looks on.
No one at City Hall seems interested in whether the DAC will violate the law either — despite some court rulings that raise doubts about the center’s potential uses. A federal judge, for example, ruled earlier this month that the NSA’s phone-data collection program is likely unconstitutional. And the US Supreme Court previously ruled that police can’t track a suspect’s car without a warrant. The DAC’s proposed capabilities include similarities to both cases: The center would collect large amounts of data by reading license plates from cars as they move through the city and through surveillance cameras. And it would do so without a warrant.
Ironically, the one thing that could derail the DAC is another piece of progressive activism from Oakland’s past — the Nuclear Weapons Free Ordinance. Approved in the 1980s, the law prohibits the city from doing business with contractors involved in nuclear weapons work. And it was this law that forced the city to sever ties with the DAC’s first contractor, SAIC.
City staffers want the council to replace SAIC with another contractor, Schneider Electric. But the Oakland Privacy Working Group, a coalition of activists opposed to the DAC, has uncovered evidence that Schneider also is involved in nuclear weapons contracting and that the company’s own marketing materials have described it as a “global specialist” in “weapon launching control systems for nuclear submarines” and “nuclear weapons handling systems.” In addition, all the other potential DAC contractors have nuclear weapons ties, too. The Oakland Privacy Working Group has threatened to sue the city if it goes forward with Schneider on the grounds that it would violate the Nuclear Weapons Free Ordinance.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the DAC represents yet another example of a troubling trend in Oakland and throughout the nation: the idea that, in order to fight crime (or terrorism), we need to either allow our constitutional rights to be eroded or let our government infringe on the rights of others — in the name of programs whose effectiveness is dubious. It’s been a repeated theme in Oakland. First, it was with gang injunctions, which sought to limit the movements and associations of certain residents without due process — and after they had already paid their debts to society. And then it was with a proposed curfew law, which would have allowed police to arrest teens for walking down the street at the wrong time.
Oakland’s political leaders were smart not to expand gang injunctions or adopt a youth curfew. And they would be smart to not go forward with the DAC as well.