Oakland Finally Advances Measure To Rein In Stasi-Style Surveillance

Residents in Oakland, California have been attempting to reclaim their city from unwarranted spying by police for years, and the local bureaucracy is not helping.

The City took its surveillance operations to a new level during the height of the Occupy Wall-Street Movement in 2013, when police proposed to use $2 million in federal grant money to expand a surveillance program, once only utilized in the port of Oakland, throughout the rest of the city.

“This was [in response to] the Occupy Oakland movement in 2012 and in 2013,” former civil rights lawyer Brian Hofer said.

“The city’s plan was to link more than 700 surveillance cameras throughout the city, license plate readers, shot spotters and other surveillance equipment into a system where law enforcement could have consistent and real-time access to the data.”

Hofer heads up a privacy committee working to limit the surveillance back to the port of Oakland, develop a comprehensive privacy and data policy, and build awareness of the City’s Domain Awareness Center (DAC).

The DAC is the building where surveillance operations are managed by the City. Hofer’s privacy committee advocates requiring the DAC to designate a chief privacy officer, who would routinely record and report the use of surveillance technologies to the committee and city council.

Making residents aware of a DAC expansion plan in 2015 led to a list of seven recommendations being approved by the City.

One of those established a permanent advisory committee to review surveillance equipment purchase requests by law enforcement agencies. Another aimed to develop a citywide surveillance technology ordinance.

At the time, Hofer said the ordinance would allow people who believe that they have been unnecessarily targeted by police surveillance activities to seek redress in court, request that the surveillance be halted, and have their legal fees covered if they win.

In January, privacy advocates made more headway reigning in the controversial surveillance practices being perpetrated in Oakland when the City’s Privacy Commission unanimously approved the “Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance.”

The ordinance stipulates that the City’s various departments be required to disclose any new surveillance technologies to the public before seeking City Council approval in order to purchase them. The law also seeks to impose requirements for reporting the costs and benefits of such technologies.

On Tuesday, the Public Safety Committee of the Oakland City Council approved the measure, which will now require full City Council approval before becoming law. The tedious reform process illustrates the problems inherent in forms of government bureaucracy.

It’s interesting to note that many Oakland privacy advocates adhere to socialist doctrines related to bureaucratic involvement in peoples lives, rationalizing that committees are an integral part of protecting individual liberty from government intrusion.

After nearly five years of activism, a meaningful reform measure has finally manifested into what may become law. In his 1944 work, Bureaucracy, the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises outlined how the problems of increasing bureaucratization of government result not from bad policies or corruption, but from the very bureaucratic structures themselves.

He states:

The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. . . They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. Every man but one a subordinate clerk in a bureau. What an alluring utopia!

If passed, the Oakland measure could make the City a west coast bastion for activists concerned with the rise of new and intrusive surveillance technologies like “stingray,” the purchase of which is shrouded in secrecy by law enforcement agencies.

“Unfettered surveillance doesn’t just waste public money and abuse our civil liberties. It endangers lives,” Hofer said. “We must institutionalize limits to surveillance, prohibit secret uses, require maximum oversight and transparency, and impose penalties for misconduct.”