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Oakland Surveillance Center: Fact or (Science) Fiction?

| February 5, 2014
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Surveillance Camera (Getty Images)

Surveillance camera (Getty Images)

The Oakland City Council will soon be voting on plans for a new surveillance hub called the Domain Awareness Center. Backers say it’ll help the crime-ridden city deal with murder and even prevent it. Activists fear it’ll become a tool for spying.

While these two sides disagree, starkly, they both assume one thing: that the surveillance center will actually work. But is that true? Experts in Silicon Valley’s surveillance industry say it’s more like science fiction.

Most of the money for the surveillance center is coming from the Department of Homeland Security. It’s an anti-terrorism grant to protect the harbor. So City Councilman Dan Kalb didn’t get what all the controversy was about, if the center was just going to pull camera feeds from the port.

At a hearing, he asked the rhetorical question: “This is all on port property, including airport, all of port property, right? It’s not the rest of the city?”

Wrong.

City staff explained it is the rest of the city — thousands of live feeds, even from the Coliseum. But no cameras would go into people’s living rooms. So Kalb gave the nod. “All right, sounds good to me!”

That exchange happened at a council meeting a few months back. The center has been five years in the making. It’s supposed to go live this summer. But it doesn’t sound so good to experts in Silicon Valley who specialize in surveillance. With just a cursory look at the project, they say, the city is making some textbook mistakes.

Data overload

Take data overload.

“When you start by grabbing whatever data you can find and then hoping to get insight out of it later, it becomes a very drawn-out expensive process,” says Feris Rifai, “and frankly a bit of an upside-down approach.”

Rifai is CEO of Bay Dynamics, a San Francisco company that builds big data tools for big banks.

City officials paint this futuristic picture of supercomputers pulling in feeds from cameras, gunshot detectors, license plate readers, 911 calls, criminal records. Analysts sitting in front of giant monitors will scan data round the clock, cross-reference GPS coordinates and email real-time reports to first responders.

It sounds very familiar, like the sci-fi hit “Minority Report” with Tom Cruise.

Hollywood aside, back in Oakland, the city’s chief technology officer Ahsan Baig sums up the vision: “From child abduction to robbery to overturned truck, this whole process is going to automate this whole thing. So everything is going to be available right in front of you.”

But Rifai says big data doesn’t work that way. It takes some focus. And given the lack of focus in Oakland, several experts say there’s a good chance the city will spend a lot more than $1.25 million (the amount from Homeland Security).

“From our experience with organizations collecting everything and then trying to figure out what to do with it,” Firai says, “it is going to be a costly project beyond what the federal money they’ve secured provides them today. So that’s our prediction.”

Basic contradictions

Cost isn’t the only issue. There’s a lot of confusion in the core team — even with simple things like hours of operation.

The Port of Oakland is not staffed 24 hours a day. As Chief Michael O’Brien explains, if an alarm goes off, say at 4 a.m., no one’s there to check if it’s an organized crime gang or a stray cat. With a central hub, police and firefighters can be the port’s eyes.

‘People look for technological silver bullets to solve problems, when often times there are very serious policy, legal and societal issues that are really the problems.’

O’Brien says, “The plan is to have a 24/7 operation.”

But the city’s chief of emergency services, Renee Domingo, assumes the opposite. “We envision that there’s a dark period when there’s nothing going on and rather than having 24 hours, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible in terms of the staffing.”

That dark period would be around 4 a.m.

In-house expertise

Domingo says the surveillance center is one of the most ambitious projects Oakland has undertaken to reduce crime. Everyone wants a safer city.

But she’s still not sure if the top dog on this project will be a high-ranking public official or a private contractor. Domingo says employees from the city will make up most of the staff.

“They could be record-keepers, they could be emergency planning coordinators, maybe retired dispatch people — people that have worked in dispatch centers,” she says.

Michael McNerney, a former cyber-advisor at the Department of Defense, thinks that is practically infeasible. “Knowing what you’re looking at is a specialized skill set. So these things tend to work best when you have specialized professionals who do this for a living.”

McNerney, now based in Palo Alto, is a fan of surveillance centers. He’s helped build and maintain military ones. But without that high-tech skills set on hand, he says, tried and true public safety tools like street patrol or education might be better.

“People look for technological silver bullets to solve problems, when often times there are very serious policy, legal and societal issues that are really the problems,” he said.

The city’s chief technology officer, Baig, says so far the plan is on target and the next phase will fall into place as soon as the city can decide on a private contractor.

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Category: Law and Justice, Technology

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About the Author ()

Aarti Shahani is a reporter at KQED, focusing on business and technology. She came to San Francisco as a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She was part of the ProPublica team awarded an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for Post Mortem – a series examining the unregulated coroner and medical examiner industry. Shahani got her Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship and a Public Service Fellowship. She studied globalization as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was raised in Flushing, Queens – in the nation’s most diverse zip code. Reach Aarti Shahani at ashahani@kqed.org.

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