OAKLAND -- In a sharp reversal, council members made clear early Wednesday they would no longer support moving forward with an intelligence center that has the capacity to conduct surveillance on Oakland streets.
Twice last year, the City Council voted to support the Domain Awareness Center -- a joint project with the Port of Oakland that was billed as helping police solve crimes, first responders react to emergencies, and the port protect itself from terrorist attacks.
But after further revelations of federal surveillance programs, threats of lawsuits from First Amendment advocates, and unsatisfactory attempts by city officials to address privacy concerns, a majority of council members said the center should not include any tools that could be used to spy on residents.
"I'm deeply troubled by the revelations of (Edward) Snowden," Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said during a council meeting that stretched into Wednesday morning. "I am fearful of the abuse of this technology once it is deployed, and so for me, I cannot vote for this."
The full extent of the council's reversal won't be known until it revisits the issue on March 4. Council members did indicate that they would support the center to be used for its original purpose -- to safeguard the port from attack.
But they clearly had decided to rein in the project, which they approved last July.
At that time, one of the key questions was how many cameras from city streets and schools would be integrated into the system. But on Tuesday, council members asked city staffers to report back on whether the 40 street cameras already integrated could be disabled.
The item before the City Council on Tuesday was approval of a $1.6 million contract to complete the center. By delaying a vote for two weeks, the council risked losing about $650,000 in federal grant funds that are tied to the project being finished before the end of May. Should the council refuse to approve the contract, the port could attempt to move ahead with a scaled-down intelligence hub that only serves the port property, said Mike O'Brien, the port's facilities security officer.
Mayor Jean Quan urged council members not to scrap portions of the project that could be used to help police and firefighters respond to a major earthquake or fire, such as the integration of public safety dispatch and vehicle locator systems into the intelligence hub. "I'd like you to take a break and not act from fear ... because there are clearly uses of this technology that will save people's lives," she said.
The council's change of heart was applauded by dozens of privacy advocates, several of whom had screamed "shame" at council members at the end of previous debates when the council had backed the intelligence center.
"The City Council deserves enormous credit for recognizing the potential for abuse and mission creep and asking essential questions, like why a project about port security contains surveillance systems from across the city," Linda Lye, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said on Wednesday.
The intelligence center was proposed to consolidate feeds from street cameras, gunshot sensors and other surveillance tools that would be broadcast on a bank of constantly monitored television screens. Already $2.9 million in federal funds have been spent getting the center ready for operation.
While the center was originally proposed for the port, the city joined the project and sought to expand it to resemble intelligence hubs that already exist in major cities such as New York and Chicago.
Police said the center could help them better use surveillance cameras to solve crimes and coordinate responses to major incidents.
But privacy advocates relentlessly criticized the project, warning that the reams of data anticipated to be collected by the center could be used against protesters or handed over to federal authorities.
They kept up the pressure after the initial contractor approved to finish the project last July was disqualified because of ties to the nuclear weapons industry.
In the meantime council members began to question whether the project would be too costly to operate and wind up embroiling Oakland in expensive litigation. And several council members grew more skeptical with each revelation about the nation's federal surveillance program and the city's initial struggles to draft regulations to safeguard privacy.
After more than four hours of debate, the council declined to vote on a proposal from Councilman Dan Kalb to approve completing the project but to only include systems directly connected to port security and disaster response.
Instead the council voted 6-0 -- Kalb and Councilman Larry Reid abstained -- to take up the issue in two weeks. Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who authored the motion to delay, was clear about the direction the council was heading. "We are pulling back and making it a port Domain Awareness Center and not a citywide domain awareness center," she said.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435