Oakland Privacy Commission Vote Marks Victory for Activists

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This week marked a major victory for privacy activists in Oakland, when the city’s Privacy Commission was formally voted into being at a Council meeting on Tuesday. The creation of the nine-member Commission is the culmination of over two years’ campaigning, protest, and negotiation, triggered in 2013 by the proposed expansion and centralization of public surveillance in both the Port and City of Oakland.

Privacy and surveillance issues were manifested in the form of the Port of Oakland Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a surveillance hub that would aggregate vast quantities of data from CCTV cameras, ShotSpotter systems, traffic cameras, license plate readers, and stingrays, amongst other devices. During 2014, activists forced the Council to limit the DAC to the Port of Oakland, and started campaigning for a permanent committee to advise the City Council on privacy and data-related issues.

The new Privacy Commission created by the City Council this week will have nine members, nominated by Council Members and appointed by the Mayor. Six must be Oakland residents, and the ordinance recommends (but does not require) that some members have expertise in areas such as civil liberties protections and data encryption. Beyond appointing members, the Commission’s first order of business will be the creation of a Surveillance Equipment Ordinance which, if successful, will ensure an open, public debate about the purchase and use of any new surveillance equipment before the City moves forward.

Brian Hofer, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, described this shift as the major achievement of the Privacy Working Group to date:

When the Domain Awareness Center issue came up, privacy concerns were discussed after [the project was proposed]. We want to flip that, and have the discussion about privacy at the beginning. We should be asking questions like is this [new technology] appropriate for our community? How are you going to use it? How long are you going to keep the data?

A recent article in Mic places Oakland’s victory in the broader context law enforcement adoption of surveillance technology across the country, and highlights the Oakland Privacy Commission as a leading example of what is possible when engaged community members push back. Speaking to Ellie Kaufman for Mic, Hofer described how “We went from not getting listened to at all and just going full speed ahead with this Domain Awareness Center to suddenly getting a unanimous vote for a standing privacy committee … I think City Hall has really acknowledged that there is a privacy impact from the use of surveillance equipment. Law enforcement included has realized that we need to think before we act.”