The Daylighting Society

Orwell Averted in Oakland

Too often we do not learn about surveillance systems until they are already in place, but there are a few exceptions. This is the story of Oakland California’s Domain Awareness Center, a DHS-funded city-wide security system narrowly blocked by concerned citizens.

The Domain Awareness Center, or DAC, was originally intended to improve safety near Oakland’s port, but rapidly grew to cover the city with draconian surveillance technology. Among its highlights are:

  • 700 surveillance cameras through the Oakland school district
  • Facial-recognition software
  • Automatic license-plate readers
  • ShotSpotter (microphone detection of gunshots)

ShotSpotter deserves special recognition. The technology is supposed to deploy microphones to detect gunshots and alert police immediately to their location. Unfortunately, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) did not test ShotSpotter for false positives because of “criminal ordinances against fireworks in Redwood City.” As a result, the system (which costs over $100,000 per square mile) has performed abysmally, with only ten percent accuracy in a 2012 trial. ShotSpotter has also been shown to have a minimal impact on crime. Despite this, ShotSpotter has been widely deployed, perhaps for its perceived role in making streets safer, or because of its ability to record conversations through the city. SST, the company responsible for ShotSpotter, is adamant that their technology is not used for spying.

The Domain Awareness Center is a part of the growing “Smart City” movement, which aims to link a network of sensors and communication systems throughout a city, improving efficiency and reducing crime. Unfortunately, there remain many privacy concerns regarding Smart Cities, as well as their vulnerability to hackers.

In Oakland’s case, citizens became involved early in the process, involved the American Civil Liberties Union, and ultimately convinced the city council to severely reduce the scope of the Domain Awareness Center. Surveillance cameras and gunshot detectors were disconnected from the DAC, and the system was restricted to covering the Oakland port, but not the city.

Posted 9/28/16

Mass Arrests and Facebook Censorship

Yesterday North Dakota activated its National Guard, who arrived in full riot gear to arrest protestors of the Dakota Oil Pipeline. At least twenty people were arrested, including medics and journalists. However, one of the most striking things about the arrest was its absence on social media.

The AntiMedia reports that Facebook blocked posts including a link to the protest live stream, and the Facebook debugger reported the link “violated ‘community standards.’” In a followup to MotherBoard, Facebook claims their automatic spam filter flagged the link by mistake, trying to remove “unsafe content”. It has also overzealously blocked links to Wikileaks, videos of police shootings, and a historic Vietnam War photo.

This may well be a technical glitch, as writing code to interpret video and images, or even human language, is a notoriously difficult task. Even so, the fact that an overly hasty algorithm can intervene and prevent news from reaching more than one and a half billion users is a disturbing thought.

Posted 9/14/16

Surveillance Catalog Leaked

The Intercept has published a 120-page leaked catalog of surveillance equipment by Cobham designed for “law enforcement, military, national security, and border patrol agencies.” This equipment is designed for covert surveillance of targets, usually by engaging in mass-surveillance of everyone in an area.

Some of the more impressive items include:

  • Cameras that transmit data over power-lines by plugging into a wall outlet, leaving no RF signature
  • Cameras hidden in:
    • LED streetlights
    • The metal utility boxes on street sides
    • Outdoor trash cans
    • Smoke detectors
    • Paint buckets
  • A rugged meshnet to links surveillance gear through entire neighborhoods
  • Dog-mounted surveillance cameras

They also sport a large collection of microphones and transmitters, hidden among clothing, car chargers, mugs, usb sticks, and keyfobs.

Cobham also sells GPS, RDF (Radio Direction Finding), and GSM / CDMA transmitters, used to track the exact locations of moving targets.

Lastly, Cobham sells cell-network IMSI catchers, known more commonly as notorious “Stingrays.” These allow surveillance agencies to track your location using your cell phone, without installing any software or tracking devices on your person.

Ultimately they try to bundle all their equipment as a package deal to create “Safe Cities”, providing scalable surveillance “to help protect cities and keep citizens safe.” This is apparently done by deploying city-wide CCTV, hidden IP cameras, audio recording, and cell tower interception, all routed through a central Command and Control center.

Cobham, “The most important thing we build is trust.”

Posted 9/10/16

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