Oakland looks into more surveillance, drones to fight local crime

Despite concerns about government snooping and tech incompetence, the progressive city is considering spy centers

Sandy Sanders of Oakland, Calif., argues against an Alameda County plan to acquire a drone for aerial enforcement earlier this year. The privacy-versus-security debate has been going strong in Oakland.
D. Ross Cameron/AP

OAKLAND, Calif. — The City Council meeting here in November was a circus that lasted until 2 a.m.

Council members and citizens butted heads over the Domain Awareness Center— a surveillance hub that elected officials said would use thousands of live feeds from cameras, gunshot detectors and license-plate readers to protect the public. Critics worried it would violate rights.

In the post–Edward Snowden era, the tug-of-war between privacy and security has become more charged. Cities around the country continue to grapple with whether to accept federal post-9/11 grants to monitor residents.

Oakland is a singular site for this conflict. It is a city so progressive that a councilman at the hearing wore a skirt in honor of Transgender Remembrance Day. Yet it is also a place where crime is so pervasive that the sheriff wanted to purchase drones to circle over murder hot spots, and it is struggling with a tax base eroded by the foreclosure crisis.

The Department of Homeland Security has a partial solution: funding to start local surveillance projects that, in theory, protect public safety. While the money may be appealing, leading cybersecurity experts said there are significant reasons —beyond privacy concerns — to turn it down.

At the City Council hearing, protesters calling themselves “Seymour Butts” and “Edward Snowden” hinted at these reasons when they asked questions such as “Who pays if the project goes over budget?” and “What happens if the center is hacked?”

The council members did not have answers. But they did have a grant deadline. If Oakland didn’t approve the project, it risked losing $2 million in federal money.

Six of the seven members voted to move forward.

Big data as magic

Big-data analytics is the process of connecting previously unconnected piles of information — like camera feeds — to look for important patterns. According to experts, the tools are still in their infancy.

But Oakland is eager to try them. The city is among the most violent in the country.

The city’s chief technology officer, Ahsan Baig, said the surveillance center would help solve open criminal cases and prevent crimes.

“It’s a great deterrent,” he said.

He painted a futuristic picture: Supercomputers would pull in data from thousands of sensors in every corner of the city. Analysts sitting in front of giant monitors would scan that data around the clock. With crime scenes, they’d cross-reference GPS coordinates and criminal databases to locate any nearby felons. And the analysts would produce real-time reports for first responders.

“It’s pretty much instantaneous, in a split second,” Baig said.

If Oakland manages to get new surveillance tools like drones, the center would not become outdated because, he said, “It’s designed to take in new data feeds. This process will automate everything.”

Bruce Schneier is a Minneapolis-based technologist who has been called a “security guru” by The Economist. He said the big-data proposal is seductive but unrealistic. Because Oakland has a crime problem, city officials want help from “a little magic,” he said, “so you believe in the magician.”

New York and other cities are working with companies such as IBM and Microsoft to use big data in policing. It’s expensive, and no law enforcement agency in the U.S. has invested more in it than the Pentagon. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, has said repeatedly that with data, he might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.

Schneier said Alexander’s claim is a gross overstatement, given that the technology is “pretty new.” But national leaders don’t push back.

“No one in Congress looks him in the eye and says, ‘You didn’t prevent Boston,’” Schneier said.

He and other analysts compare data to piles of hay. Collect enough of it and valuable needles get buried in the stack.

That was the key finding in a 2012 bipartisan Senate investigation into dozens of so-called fusion centers — hubs designed for local, state and federal authorities to share intelligence with one another. The centers were a post-9/11 innovation meant to improve teamwork across law-enforcement agencies. Instead, the report found, the centers “forwarded ‘intelligence’ of uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely.”

A fusion center that participated in the high-profile criminal investigation of U.S. Rep. Gabby Gifford’s shooting muddied the investigation by publicizing incorrect data about Gifford and her shooter.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who initiated the investigation, said in a press release that “instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”

The Senate report noted that Department of Homeland Security officials made false claims when selling the project to the public. The report also criticized the DHS for failing to do the most basic accounting. The agency was not sure how much it spent on fusion centers and estimated the total was anywhere from $289 million to $1.4 billion.

Free money or not enough?

Oakland Police Department headquarters.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s hard to turn down federal grants, but experts said the funding is not enough to cover the costs.

Oakland has set an annual operating budget of $1.25 million for its surveillance center.

Security consultant Michael McNerney said, “That strikes me as a very low number, and I can only imagine you get what you pay for.”

McNerney, based in San Francisco, was a cyberpolicy adviser at the Pentagon and is a fan of the military’s fusion centers.

Because big-data analytics is expensive, Pentagon agencies that typically worked in silos teamed up to cut costs.

“It’s tremendous economies of scale,” he said. “To the extent that you can centralize data, it can save money.”

He said Oakland doesn’t have the budget or reputation to attract top talent to execute the project. And there is a new cost created when data is centralized.

“There’s the insider threat, like cops spying on their ex-girlfriends,” McNerney said. “There’s also the outsider threat: one-stop shopping for hackers. Even powerful federal agencies have a hard time stopping that.”

And there’s a high risk of cost overruns. “Cities often get in over their heads," he said. “There’s not a lot of this being done well.”

In the wake of HealthCare.gov — the half-billion-dollar website that was unable to complete even a thousand enrollments a day — technologists have noted the failure of government to execute basic projects.

A 2012 investigation by the Oakland auditor indicated the city has a poor track record. The audit found that police spent at least $1.87 million on “never used or underused technology” and their purchases “have drawn down Oakland’s very limited financial resources without significant benefit to the citizens of Oakland.”

How does it work?

The Oakland Police Department declined an interview to discuss the big-data project. The agency is mired in scandal. It was nearly taken over by the federal government earlier this year. In one tumultuous month, it had three police chiefs in as many days. It is now under the watch of a court-appointed outside monitor.

Oakland plans to launch the center by July 2014. Yet interviews with leading officials indicated they do not agree on key details.

The city has not decided if the head of the surveillance center will be a public official or a private contractor. The contractor the city hired for the first phase of the project, Science Applications International Corp., paid New York City $500 milion in a settlement over contract fraud and overcharged Oakland for services.

City officials also are not sure if the dozen staffers operating the center will be retired city dispatchers or quantitative analysts with degrees in advanced mathematics.

“Those are very different skill sets,” McNerney said.

The federal funds go to the Port of Oakland as an anti-terrorism grant to protect the harbor. The port is a separate entity from the city and cannot always get police or fire officials to respond to emergencies. If an alarm goes off late at night, Maritime Security Chief Michael O'Brien said, “we don’t always know if it’s an intruder or a tree branch falling.”

He said by handing the grant money over to the city for a joint surveillance center, “We’ll pool our resources and get 24/7 monitoring.”

But Rene Domingo, the city’s chief of emergency services, said the center will shut down in the late night hours because that is “a dark period where there’s not a lot going on.”

Legal liability is another gray area. The surveillance center is supposed to be a force multiplier by improving communication among first responders. But if a data team gives faulty intelligence to forces on the ground, O’Brien said, “fire and police are responsible for themselves.” Decision-makers will have to provide for the safety of their own personnel and respond to lawsuits just as they do now, he said.

Officials said the Oakland Unified School District wanted to add its camera feeds to the center. But in an email, spokesman Troy Flint rejected the claim as “speculative, hopeful on their part and not the product of any discussions or agreements.”

Feris Rifai, CEO of San Francisco–based Bay Dynamics, provides big-data tools to big banks. He said Oakland is taking an “upside-down approach” with its surveillance center.

“Instead of spending tremendous amounts of time and money consolidating data,” he said, “you need to know what you’re looking for first.”

Privacy and politics

The project does not have a written privacy policy. The city has asked the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which opposes the surveillance center, to help craft one.

ACLU attorney Linda Lye said federal grant money has had such a “distorting effect” that city leaders who typically value privacy are treating it like an afterthought.

For some in Oakland, the move feels like a desperate one.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan is facing a tough bid for re-election. City employees said she is advocating for the surveillance center, but her office did not respond to interview requests.

Schneier said it’s hard for leaders like Quan to get security right in a democracy because there is public pressure to perform.

“If you’re running for office, you need to have done something,” he said. “Action is better than inaction.”

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