The city of Oakland has yet again become a hotspot in the fight against mass surveillance. The East Bay Express reports the Oakland Police Department began using a social media surveillance and analytics tool called Geofeedia, but the public was never informed about it.
While social media is far from private and virtually anyone can tune in, a study performed by Elizabeth Stoycheff at Wayne State University found that social media users often censor their thoughts when reminded of online surveillance, and some make the argument that online surveillance programs hinder public discourse.
Geofeedia is a tool for aggregating social media posts from any location and allows users to monitor complex trends and situations from real-time location-based intelligence. Many are concerned that this tool has been used to monitor and suppress activist groups that use social media to organize. Equally as concerning to some is the fact the public is in the dark regarding internal policies on privacy, information security, and data retention.
This is far from the first controversial surveillance policy to come to Oakland. In 2013, an expanded version of a plan designed to bolster port security emerged, dubbed the Domain Awareness Center. The city wide program would have implemented license plate readers, cameras, video feeds, and facial recognition software.
The ensuing controversy and tireless work of the Oakland Privacy Working Group led to the permanent establishment of Oakland’s Privacy Commission.
Notably, the first act of commission will be to establish the Surveillance Equipment Ordinance, which will require public disclosure of the purchase or use of any new surveillance tools. The city’s use of Geofeedia would seem to completely undermine the goals of the commission, and add yet another reason for its existence.
While police department’s move has “modernized” their toolbox in order to combat crime and terrorism, in the case of the city’s Domain Awareness Center, there were no provisions regarding any restrictions on the nature of the data collected, or how it would be managed, and this arguably shows that policy makers are leaving privacy and liberty on the sidelines.
The Oakland Privacy Commission’s is set to convene its first meeting next month, and both the Oakland Privacy Working Group and the commission will undoubtedly stand in defense of transparency and liberty.