The city says the goal is to monitor 24/7 for crime and to improve emergency response times, but privacy advocates and residents have serious doubts about that claim.
The Oakland Privacy Working Group, a coalition of civil liberties advocates, announced on Monday it would file a taxpayer lawsuit against the city of Oakland, Calif., if city officials continued to construct the Department of Homeland Security-funded Domain Awareness Center, which it says violates the First and Fourth Amendment rights of Oakland residents.
Specifically, the group says it is prepared to file a lawsuit to prevent the City of Oakland from awarding a contract to a company to dismantle all of the work that was completed under Phase 1, which involved adding and connecting computers, TVs, monitors, etc. But most importantly, the group says it wants to prevent Phase 2 from being implemented, which is when the surveillance system goes live.
Oakland Privacy says two other groups are also working on the lawsuit, but their identities have not been made public yet. Brian Hofer, media contact for Oakland Privacy, says the groups will remain anonymous until a lawsuit is actually filed.
Scheduled to go live in July 2014 and funded almost exclusively by a $10.9 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the DAC will link cameras around the city with ShotSpotter gunshot detectors, license plate readers, Geographic Information Systems mapping, social media feeds and more.
Though the city says the goal is to monitor the city 24/7 for crime and to improve emergency response times, many privacy advocates and residents have raised concerns about the center’s existence, since they stress safety is not the true goal of the center.
“We have access to a large group of internal documents obtained through a Public Records Act request,” Hofer said, adding that thousands of internal emails from City of Oakland staff show that the true intent of the DAC is monitoring political demonstrations.
Originally the Oakland City Council was supposed to take up the issue of the DAC at a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4, but Hofer says council members appear to have been spooked from all of the push back DAC opponents gave them at a meeting on Jan. 28, and decided to push back the meeting to Feb. 18.
It’s at that Feb. 18 City Council meeting that Hofer says the group will know whether it will file the lawsuit.
If the group does go ahead and file the lawsuit, Hofer says the strategy is to first seek an injunction or restraining order to try to get the city to stop conducting surveillance on residents, while it waits for the lawsuit to play out in court.
Hofer says while plaintiffs can only be those who are legal residents of California, since it’s a taxpayer lawsuit, people across the U.S. can help finance the fight against the DAC.
“There are 78 of these spy centers currently in the U.S.,” he said. “The feds are handing out money left and right to get these data networks set up across America,” which means most Americans likely live in or near one of these centers.
When asked why Americans awareness of these centers seemed largely nonexistent until the people in Oakland started fighting back, Hofer said he didn’t think really people paid attention when the centers were built in cities such as Chicago, New York and Baltimore, before adding “Oakland likes to fight back.”
Hofer said the best case scenario for him and other DAC opponents is that the city decides to stop construction of the center itself. But until that happens, Hofer says he and other privacy advocates are gathering evidence and raising funds in case the city continues to push for implementation of the DAC surveillance system.
Since much of the money used for the DAC is from federal grants, Hofer said it’s not clear whether the city would have to pay the federal government back for the money it put into the DAC, or what would happen to the technology itself, if the DAC is shut down.
Though it may sound to some like the city has even paid for the construction of a building to house the DAC technology, Hofer says that building used to be a fire department, before it morphed into an emergency operation center during the Occupy Oakland protests and eventually the DAC.