OAKLAND -- Facing criticism from privacy advocates, Oakland council members are working on safeguards to reduce the risk of abuse at a planned data hub that will consolidate hundreds of camera feeds and other surveillance tools across the city.
After meeting last week with ACLU and public safety leaders, Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Libby Schaaf said they will ask their colleagues on Tuesday to approve $2 million in funding for the Domain Awareness Center, but demand tight controls over retained footage.
"I don't know if we're going to find a way to move it forward with constraints so that all the privacy advocates will be happy," Kalb said. "But I strongly believe that there will be constraints and provisions that address those concerns."
The center, which is being funded by federal grants and jointly run with the Port of Oakland, follows a national anti-terrorism trend of aggregating surveillance systems under one roof.
The Oakland project would combine mapping systems and gunfire sensors with surveillance feeds from cameras at city streets, schools, port property and potentially the Oakland Coliseum at a central hub with television screens monitored by police and firefighters. The center also could take feeds from outside agencies such as the California Highway Patrol as well as private cameras on residential and commercial streets.
While the project is designed primarily to help first responders deal with emergencies such as an earthquake or a school shooting, privacy advocates have raised red flags about the lack of specified controls over the collected data.
In a letter to city officials last week, ACLU attorney Linda Lye warned that the center "allows for the collection and stockpiling of comprehensive information about Oakland residents ... and lacks any binding privacy protections."
There is ample opportunity for abuse, said Rajiv Shah, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studied Chicago's 25,000-camera security system.
"Once you have this information centralized, it's tremendously powerful and you really have to have the processes and mechanisms in place to make sure it's used properly," he said.
Video surveillance, he said, could be used for political blackmail or to target political protesters. Key safeguards include clear limits on access to stored footage, audits of all accessed footage and mechanisms to punish officers that abuse the system, Shah said.
Numerous police departments across the country -- including Memphis, Albuquerque, Houston and New York City -- have built command centers that receive and store surveillance video feeds. Several departments are now incorporating technology that allows police to get a clear shot at a suspect's face. Oakland officials say its system won't have that capacity.
For Oakland police, the project is designed to help them quickly access footage from existing cameras that often is not automatically accessible to them, Deputy Chief Eric Breshears said.
The proposal has launched a vigorous debate in Oakland, which has a strong tradition in defending civil liberties, but also is dealing with a rising crime rate and an understaffed police department that has residents eager for crime-fighting help.
Councilmember Noel Gallo said he would support the system even without the added restrictions. "To me, we've reached a certain point that whether it's the use of camera or other tools to help us with safety, that is what we need to do," he said.
In Chicago, which started its camera program a decade ago, Shah said it appears beneficial for major incidents, but the benefits are less clear cut when it comes to day-to-day crime-fighting. The cameras worked best at reducing crime when accompanied by an increased police presence, Shah said. "Just blanketing a city with cameras doesn't help."
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