Public safety officials in Oakland, Calif., say a new facility they’re building could help make the city safer, but the project is facing strong opposition from privacy groups. The Domain Awareness Center (DAC) is expected to be operational early next year, paid for with an estimated $10.9 million in Department of Homeland Security grants.

Originally conceived as a hub for analyzing video and sensor feeds to keep the Port of Oakland area safe, city officials may now include city fire and police operations as part of the center’s functionality.

There are many security assets around the city that may become part of the DAC: CCTV cameras, live video surveillance feeds, police shot spotter systems, police and fire record management systems, automated license plate readers, automatic vehicle location systems, port perimeter detection cameras, port thermal intrusion detection cameras, the port truck management system, external cameras, highway and chemical explosive sensors and many more. Exactly which of these systems will be included, how the various departments will interact, and how data will be managed has not yet been decided. These options will be discussed by city officials during phase two of the project, which is now under way.

While police and city officials assure the public that the DAC's intent is to target criminals and not to intrude on public privacy, groups like the ACLU have taken exception to the idea that the project was embarked upon without public discussion or firm privacy policies in place.

From Reactive to Proactive

Whatever the ultimate scope of the DAC, the value of the project, officials say, is in shifting the city’s stance on crime from reactive to proactive. A PowerPoint slide created by project leaders lists one mission of the DAC as creating a system that allows for real-time and statistical incident monitoring and improved interoperability within the city’s public safety departments.

Interim Oakland CIO Ahsan Baig said that public safety and helping reduce crime in Oakland is a large portion of his job. For the past 10 years, Baig has managed public safety systems in Oakland, and he is now one of the key figures overseeing the development of the DAC.

In phase one of the project, which can be traced back to 2008, developers laid out the hardware and software, security, and network connections for the system. In the current phase, officials will establish how the Port of Oakland, Oakland Fire Department and Oakland Police Department cooperate, he said.

“It’s all about efficiency and automation into the response when it comes to public safety and emergency response,” Baig said. “The whole idea of this Domain Awareness Center is to build a common operating picture.”

Many police and fire operations will now be more automated, and many time-consuming tasks like calling around to find information and querying various databases will be eliminated by the DAC, he added.

The city is tentatively planning to have two or three workers at the DAC while it is operational. Originally planned for 24-hour surveillance, Baig said they are still discussing options for hours of operation. The DAC may end up being operational only at night or during heavy crime periods like the weekend.

What they would like to see, Baig said, is a system where all the siloed information can be tied together in a central mapping system. Ideally, employees of the DAC would have a central view of the city that they could pass onto operating commanders and 911 operators as needed. The DAC, he said, will create a more collaborative response environment that will serve as a model for more inter-agency information sharing in the future.

Video as Crime Prevention Tool

Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Breshears, who became more heavily involved in the development of the DAC in the past three months, said the DAC could provide Oakland Police a valuable tool that aligns with several of their existing goals and missions. Before the DAC entered their thoughts, Breshears said, Oakland Police were looking for ways to make better use of video in solving and preventing crime.

In 2012, there were 131 murders in Oakland, and the city has a population of about 400,000. By comparison, New York City, which has a population of about 8.3 million, saw 419 murders the same year.

However, the DAC is not a response to crime, Breshears said. Originally built for port security, the city identified that the center will have capabilities that would be immensely useful to public safety, although they don’t yet know if police will be allowed to use it. Breshears explained approximately how it might work if public safety officials can leverage the DAC.

If one of the city’s shot-spotter systems picked up gunfire, DAC workers would receive an alert on a map, and be able to pull video footage from that area, whether from a privately owned CCTV camera whose owner had an agreement with the city, or some other camera included in the system. The DAC would be able to identify vehicles that were in the area when the shots were fired, allowing officers to run the vehicles and license plates to see if those vehicles were owned by known criminals or wanted people. All of this would happen quickly, he said, whereas in the past, the same information was available, but it took a lot of legwork to acquire.

The city is now looking at the privacy concerns around the DAC, Breshears said. “Our goal is to not use this unnecessarily,” he said. “Our goal is to use it legally and our goal is to utilize the video to capture crimes and stop crimes and improve safety for the community.”

Privacy Advocates Cry Foul

But for Linda Lye, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the city's position is unacceptable. “For the police to say, ‘Oh, we don’t know whether we’ll do it or whether we’ll not,’ how do we have a meaningful debate about whether this thing should be approved and what privacy safeguards need to be in place if we don’t even know what it is at the outset?” Lye said.

The ACLU objected to the approval of the project when it was discovered that privacy policies and a complete scope of the project would not be established until midway through development. In a letter to the Oakland City Council written on behalf of the ACLU, Lye outlined the privacy concerns posed by the DAC and urged the city not to approve a project that has not been completely mapped from the start.

“The Oakland City Council would never approve a giant construction project without fully understanding the financial implications but they have the equivalent of that here without fully understanding the privacy implications,” she said.

Lye and the ACLU claim that by building the DAC, the city is setting out to conduct mass surveillance and stockpile information about the public. The city and the police dispute this claim, stating that privacy policies are not yet in place, but policies will ensure that data collection and retention policies will be in accord with the law.

Lye said the city is effectively keeping the public on a need-to-know basis where the DAC project is concerned. Lye called for the DAC to adhere to Fair Information Practice Principles, a set of guidelines established by the Federal Trade Commission that safeguard the public’s privacy. The most fundamental principle is giving notice to any person whose information is collected. The collector must also share how the information is being used along with several other guidelines that protect the public's right to privacy.

Since the ACLU first objected to city council approval of the DAC, the city has removed school cameras from the proposed systems to be integrated, but that’s not enough, Lye said. The ACLU, she said, wants a clear description of what the DAC is, so people can decide if they want such a thing in their community in the first place.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com