On February 18, several hundred privacy, labor, civil rights activists and Black Bloc anarchists packed Oakland’s city hall. They were there to protest the construction of a citywide surveillance center that would turn a firehouse in downtown Oakland into a high-tech intelligence hub straight outta Mission Impossible.
It was a rowdy crowd, and there was a heavy police presence. Some people carried “State Surveillance No!” signs. A few had their faces covered in rags, and taunted and provoked city officials by jamming smartphones in their faces and snapping photos.
Main item on the agenda that night: The “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC) – a federally funded project that, if built as planned, would link up real time audio and video feeds from thousands of sensors across the city – including CCTV cameras in public schools and public housing projects, as well as Oakland Police Department mobile license plate scanners – into one high-tech control hub, where analysts could pipe the data through face recognition software, surveil the city by location and enrich its intelligence with data coming in from local, state and federal government and law enforcement agencies.
During the meeting, city officials argued that the DAC would help police deal with Oakland’s violent crime and invoked 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, saying that a streamlined intelligence system would help protect residents in the event of natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Their explanation was met with hisses, boos, outbursts and constant interruption from the packed gallery, and the city council struggled to retain order, repeatedly threatening to clear the room.
The anger wasn’t just the standard objection to surveillance – or at least it was, but it had been intensified by a set of documents, obtained through a public records request by privacy activists, that showed city officials were more interested in using DAC’s surveillance capabilities to monitor political protests rather than fighting crime. The evidence was abundant and overwhelming: in email after email, Oakland officials had discussed the DAC usefulness for keeping tabs on activists, monitoring non-violent political protests and minimize port disruption due to union/labor strikes.
In particular, officials wanted to use the surveillance center to monitor Occupy Wall Street-style activists, and prevent union organizing and labor strikes that might shut down the Port of Oakland.
This revelation was particularly troubling in Oakland – a city with a large marginalized black population, a strong union presence and a long, ugly history of police brutality aimed at minority groups and political activists. Police conduct is so atrocious that the department now operates under federal oversight.
Ultimately, the information contained in the document helped anti-DAC activists convince Oakland’s city council to somewhat limit the scope and size of the surveillance center. It was a minor victory, but a victory nonetheless.
But buried deep in the thousands of pages of planning documents, invoices and correspondence was something that the activists either seemed to have missed or weren’t concerned by. A handful of emails revealing that representatives from Oakland had met with executives from Google to discuss a partnership between the tech giant and the DAC.
The emails showed that Google, the largest and most powerful megacorp in Surveillance Valley, was among several other military/defense contractors vying for a piece of DAC’s $10.9-millionsurveillance contracting action.
Here’s an email exchange from October 2013. It is between Scott Ciabattari, a Google “strategic partnership manager,” and Renee Domingo, an Oakland official spearheading the DAC project: