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The Bay Area’s Spy Camera Ban Is Only the Beginning

San Francisco just became the first city to ban use of facial recognition technology by government entities. Oakland may be next.
Passersby walk under a surveillance camera that is part of a facial recognition technology test at Berlin Suedkreuz station in Berlin, Germany.
Passersby walk under a surveillance camera that is part of a facial recognition technology test at Berlin Suedkreuz station in Berlin, Germany.Steffi Loos/Getty

OAKLAND, Calif.—On the first Thursday of every month, about a dozen people meet in a dim, sepia-toned room in Oakland’s City Hall. This is the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission—a group of volunteers from each Oakland district, a representative from the Oakland Police Department and the Mayor’s office, and the city’s chief privacy officer, Joe DeVries. They gather to discuss a host of issues related to the city’s growing use of surveillance technology: how data is used, stored, and shared. Just who, in this tech-saturated city, is tracking whom?

A predecessor to the first Privacy Advisory Commission convened five years ago, after news of a planned surveillance hub surfaced. The federally funded “Domain Awareness Center” was initially intended just for the Oakland port, but city officials proposed expanding it in 2013. The stated purpose of the $11 million expanded project was to fight crime and better respond to potential emergencies. (Oakland had been struggling with an increase in violent crime since 2005.) The proposal sought to blanket the city with cameras, gunshot detectors, and automated license plate readers so that the actions, movements, and connections of suspects could be tracked—and unwanted incidents, preempted. “It’s all about efficiency and automation into the response when it comes to public safety and emergency response,” the city’s then-chief information officer, Ahsan Baig, told GovTech.