Oakland council delays call on surveillance hub

'Domain Awareness Center' would link dozens of traffic and surveillance cameras throughout city

Feb. 19--OAKLAND -- The Oakland City Council postponed a decision early Wednesday on whether to open a surveillance center after questioning whether the city would be snooping into people's everyday lives.

The council heard four hours of public testimony, most of it against the idea, before delaying a vote on whether to hire a contractor to build the surveillance hub. It told city staffers to study the issue further and report back in two weeks.

The Domain Awareness Center would link dozens of traffic and surveillance cameras with police and fire dispatch systems, Twitter feeds, crime maps, gunshot-detecting microphones and alarm programs. It would be run by the city and the Port of Oakland.

Critics fear that the center would allow the city to spy on people who are doing nothing wrong. Council members said they wanted more information about how they could narrow the center's scope.

The "mission creep ... needs to be contained, especially when we are not even close to having a real privacy policy," said council President Pat Kernighan. She said the city was "marching down the generalized path of adding BART cameras and other kinds of cameras. I just don't think we're ready for that."

Opponents of the center called the delay a victory.

"Democracy is absolutely working," said Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "It is too much, too fast. The City Council is asking the really important questions."

Council members said they wanted to hear the reasons for collecting the data that the center would scoop up.

City officials say the center would allow authorities to improve their response to crime, terrorism, earthquakes, fires or hazardous materials incidents.

The tentative opening date of the center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way is October. It would cost $10.9 million in federal grants.

The center would be monitored 24 hours a day by a police officer, a police analyst or a port employee. Several council members, however, said they wanted an iron-clad privacy policy in place first.

"There is work to be done," said Councilwoman Desley Brooks. "We need to bring this back a little bit. ... I think we need to pay close attention to what we are doing here and not be in such a rush."

The center's critics do not include Mayor Jean Quan. She said the proposal was similar to what other cities are doing.

"This is an incident center -- this is not an ongoing monitoring center," Quan said. "It is technology that other cities have. This is nothing new. ... We're doing what most other big cities do to help their firefighters and help their police officers."

Quan said council members were putting too much stock in opponents' comparison of the center to such surveillance as the National Security Agency's data-mining.

"I just want them to think," Quan said. "I worry that we won't use some capability that will save people's lives."

Will Kane is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: wkane@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WillKane

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