Oakland Privacy Activist Brian Hofer Receives March 2016 Patriot Award

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BORDC/DDF’s March 2016 Patriot Award winner is Brian Hofer of the Oakland Privacy Working Group. Under his leadership, the group has made Oakland, California, a model for all cities seeking to gain control of the amount and type of information the government collects about them. Here’s how it all happened.

In 2009, Oakland was developing a plan to build a federally funded surveillance system for its port. As the project moved forward, its scope expanded and by 2013, the Oakland Domain Awareness Center (DAC) was no longer confined to the Port of Oakland. It was poised to watch over the entire city, using such technologies as cameras, license plate readers, video feeds, facial recognition software, and gunshot detectors.

In addition to gathering information about potential terrorist attacks, the DAC would gather information about potential criminal activity, while remaining on alert for disasters and emergencies. Despite the vast reach of its powers, the plan contained no restrictions on use or data sharing, no provisions for privacy, no limits on what information would be collected, or how long that information would be retained.

While all of this was going on, Brian Hofer was living and working in Oakland. While he was growing up, his father had been politically active, but he himself had never gotten directly involved in any cause. But in December of 2013 he read an article in The East Bay Express, entitled “The Real Purpose of Oakland’s Surveillance Center.” The article detailed the findings of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, a small group of activists who had filed a California Public Records Act request and subsequently obtained emails and public records relating to the proposed citywide DAC. From these documents, the group discerned that the DAC’s information-gathering capabilities would be a major threat to the civil liberties of Oakland residents while doing very little to address the problem of crime.

The night after reading that article, Brian attended a meeting of the Oakland Privacy Working Group. After that, things began to move quickly. In January of 2014, Brian and the Oakland Privacy Working Group threatened a lawsuit opposing the DAC and started to get more press coverage. In February, they published this letter in The East Bay Express. In March, as a direct result of their protests, the Oakland City Council voted to restrict the surveillance project to the Port of Oakland, as originally planned. “They just took the city out of it,” Brian said. “They removed the alarming civil liberties parts—the facial recognition software and license plate readers and the data and the cameras.”

That was a big win, but Brian and the Oakland Privacy Working Group didn’t stop there. In May of 2014, Brian chaired an ad hoc privacy committee that created the DAC Privacy Policy for the City of Oakland, which was passed by the Oakland City Council in June of 2015. As BORDC reported at that time, “The Privacy Policy defines acceptable uses for the DAC’s spy capability, importantly forbidding its use against protests if there is no particularized reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.” But this privacy policy only related to the DAC. What about the need for privacy going forward?

In January of 2016, BORDC was proud to report that, thanks to efforts by Brian and Oakland Privacy Working Group, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to make the Privacy Commission a standing committee. Nominations and confirmations for positions on the commission, which is currently the only one of its kind in the United States, are happening now. As Occupy Oakland reported, “The Commission’s first task will be to draft and submit to the Council a Surveillance Equipment Ordinance which will deal generally with policies and procedures if and when new surveillance tech becomes available and City agencies, especially OPD, wish to acquire it.”

Like all activists, Brian Hofer and the Oakland Privacy Working Group started out by being reactive. Now, after years of hard work, their success is allowing them to be magnificently proactive. Brian says, “We want to . . . have the discussion about privacy at the beginning.” He believes that, when it comes to matters of personal privacy and civil liberties, “we need to think before we act.” Therefore, the Oakland Privacy Working Group is now involved with the Boards of Supervisors for the counties of Alameda and Santa Clara, among others, helping them to establish such safeguards as privacy policies and surveillance equipment ordinances.

Brian Hofer’s work is expanding, to benefit other California residents and serve as a beacon for other activists who believe that the government must operate under public scrutiny. BORDC/DDF is honored to present to him with our March 2016 Patriot Award.