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