October 13, 2013
Privacy Fears Grow as Cities Increase Surveillance
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
OAKLAND, Calif. — Federal grants of $7 million awarded to this city were meant largely to help thwart terror attacks at its bustling port. But instead, the money is going to a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town — from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city’s upscale hills.
The new system, scheduled to begin next summer, is the latest example of how cities are compiling and processing large amounts of information, known as big data, for routine law enforcement. And the system underscores how technology has enabled the tracking of people in many aspects of life.
The police can monitor a fire hose of social media posts to look for evidence of criminal activities; transportation agencies can track commuters’ toll payments when drivers use an electronic pass; and the National Security Agency, as news reports this summer revealed, scooped up telephone records of millions of cellphone customers in the United States.
Like the Oakland effort, other pushes to use new surveillance tools in law enforcement are supported with federal dollars. The New York Police Department, aided by federal financing, has a big data system that links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists. Police in Massachusetts have used federal money to buy automated license plate scanners. And police in Texas have bought a drone with homeland security money, something that Alameda County, which Oakland is part of, also tried but shelved after public protest.
Proponents of the Oakland initiative, formally known as the Domain Awareness Center, say it will help the police reduce the city’s notoriously high crime rates. But critics say the program, which will create a central repository of surveillance information, will also gather data about the everyday movements and habits of law-abiding residents, raising legal and ethical questions about tracking people so closely.
Libby Schaaf, an Oakland City Council member, said that because of the city’s high crime rate, “it’s our responsibility to take advantage of new tools that become available.” She added, though, that the center would be able to “paint a pretty detailed picture of someone’s personal life, someone who may be innocent.”
For example, if two men were caught on camera at the port stealing goods and driving off in a black Honda sedan, Oakland authorities could look up where in the city the car had been in the last several weeks. That could include stoplights it drove past each morning and whether it regularly went to see Oakland A’s baseball games.
For law enforcement, data mining is a big step toward more complete intelligence gathering. The police have traditionally made arrests based on small bits of data — witness testimony, logs of license plate readers, footage from a surveillance camera perched above a bank machine. The new capacity to collect and sift through all that information gives the authorities a much broader view of the people they are investigating.
For the companies that make big data tools, projects like Oakland’s are a big business opportunity. Microsoft built the technology for the New York City program. I.B.M. has sold data-mining tools for Las Vegas and Memp
Oakland entered into a a contract with the Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, to build its system. (In late September, that company was renamed Leidos Holdings.)
The company’s contract to help modernize the New York City payroll system, using new technology like biometric readers, resulted in reports of kickbacks. Last year, the company paid the city $500 million to avoid a federal prosecution. The amount was believed to be the largest ever paid to settle accusations of government contract fraud. A representative of SAIC, now Leidos, declined to comment.
October 13, 2013