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Privacy Activists’ Nuclear Option: Suing Oakland Over Spy Center’s Nuclear Weapons Contractors

Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center could be in violation of the California city’s Nuclear Free Zone ordinance.

Oakland's Domain Awareness Center could be in violation of the California city's Nuclear Free Zone ordinance.

A coalition of civil liberties groups and advocates may sue Oakland in the coming weeks if the city signs a contract with military contractor Schneider Electric to implement phase two of Oakland’s planned Domain Awareness Center.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group delivered a cease-and-desist letter to Mayor Jean Quan, the city council, the city administrator and the city attorney last week indicating the group plans to seek an injunction to prevent the remaining bidders from carrying out the contract, halting further construction.

The coalition argues that Schneider Electric is a nuclear weapons contractor and that hiring the company would violate Oakland’s Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Ordinance. Schneider Electric touts on its website that its main applications include “weapon launching control system[s] for nuclear submarines” and “nuclear weapon handling system[s].” Further, according to the East Bay Express, all of the contract’s bidders have some kind of tie to nuclear weapons. But city staffers have thus far indicated they are satisfied Schneider Electric doesn’t violate the city’s nuclear weapons ordinance.

“I got involved in January and, due to some previous contract law background, quickly came up with the bartering disqualification angle under the municipal code to attempt, in a quicker and easier manner, to disqualify the bidders from this project,” said Brian Hofer, a Working Group spokesman. “So we’re trying to nip it in the bud before we even get to the civil liberties battle, which will be a much longer and kind of a higher-concept fight.”

The $10.9 million surveillance center is being built in stages and funded primarily through a Department of Homeland Security grant. The center will integrate the Oakland Police Department’s license plate scanners and gunshot detectors as well as social media feeds, mapping systems, feeds from hundreds of public and private cameras all over the city and other monitoring technologies into a centralized hub. The first phase of construction was completed in October 2013, and the city approved a $2 million grant for the second phase of construction in July 2013.

But resistance to the spy center has been steadily on the rise in a city with a long history of civil resistance to state oppression. The coalition contends the center violates residents’ constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments but also is fighting the construction on racial justice grounds since communities of color are likely to come under disproportionate surveillance if plans to include camera feeds from public housing, school and public transit move forward.

The new strategy may prove to be the most pragmatic and efficient path for privacy advocates who have been battling the city in the past few years to stop the center from moving forward. Hofer told Truthout the strategy is based on the council’s previous actions in November 2013, when it terminated its contract with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) after the company’s extensive work with the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure was revealed.

The group is also arguing that the Hewlett-Packard computer hardware, facilitated and installed in the spy center by SAIC during its first phase of construction, should be removed due to the corporation’s involvement with nuclear weapons.

“We’re basically just saying stand by your decision,” Hofer said.

But the Hofer told Truthout the city council’s reaction to the group’s letter has been mixed. More recently, the group has been told unofficially that the council is likely to grant a waiver to Schneider Electric, allowing the company to complete phase two of the project.

Hofer said the city has no legal justification to terminate the contract with SAIC based on the company’s violation of the nuclear weapons ordinance but grant a waiver to Schneider Electric. He also said the city could face backlash from SAIC, which lost a $1.6 million contract.

The decision to grant the company the contract will be made at the next council meeting, February 18, when the group will know whether to move forward with the lawsuit. Until then, the privacy coalition is preparing for a the potential lawsuit by raising funds online and gathering signatures on a petition to halt the center’s funding.

The group not only will argue that Schneider Electric is in violation of the city’s ordinance, it plans to litigate as a taxpayer lawsuit under the California civil code, arguing the city is extending funds illegally on the project, resulting in harm to taxpayers by infringement on their civil liberties.

Moreover, the group’s civil liberties concerns have been substantiated by internal documents obtained through a series of open records requests. A monthlong East Bay Express investigation looked at the thousands of pages of public documents, including emails and meeting minutes, and found that city staffers’ objective for the surveillance complex is not focused on lowering the city’s rate of violent crimes; rather, the documents are much more concerned with tracking political dissidents. The report notes that:

“While the emails reveal a great deal about the [spy center], they are also notable for what they do not talk about. Among the hundreds of messages sent and received by Oakland staffers and the city’s contractor team responsible for building the [spy center], there is no mention of robberies, shootings, or the 138 homicides that took place during the period of time covered by the records. City staffers do not discuss any studies pertaining to the use of surveillance cameras in combating crime, nor do they discuss how the Domain Awareness System could help [the Oakland Police Department] with its longstanding problems with solving violent crimes. In more than 3,000 pages of emails, the terms ‘murder,’ ‘homicide,’ ‘assault,’ ‘robbery,’ and ‘theft’ are never mentioned.”

Those same documents reveal that city staffers were aware SAIC was in violation of the city’s nuclear weapons ordinance for at least two months before the city took action to terminate the company’s contract, according to the coalition, and city staffers looked for ways the company could bypass the ordinance. The privacy coalition also has alleged SAIC committed perjury when company representatives signed a statement that they were not in violation of the ordinance.

Hofer told Truthout the group hopes to pursue the legal action regarding the city’s actions in relationship to SAIC, but the group is unsure if it will take up that issue in the lawsuit it plans to file in the coming weeks after the February 18 city council meeting.

In a statement released to Truthout in an email, city administrators emphasized that the project was about protecting the safety of Oakland residents, writing:

“The project is not an intelligence fusion center. We have no agreements with the NSA, CIA or the FBI to be able to access our databases or the information in the Center. The sponsor for the Port Security Grant Program is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not an intelligence agency.

The City and the Port of Oakland recognize the importance of safeguarding privacy and public safety. Keeping facilities safe and secure is essential to those who work in the Port’s maritime area. Staff is currently working to develop a draft privacy policy to safeguard the public’s rights and privacy, which will be developed in transparent collaboration with the community and elected leaders. This community engagement process will occur over the next few months.”

But the documents also reveal the police department is playing a much larger role in the creation of Domain Awareness Center policies, including privacy policies, that ultimately will govern how the center will operate. The department’s growing role in the spy center has many civil liberties advocates troubled because of the department’s history of misconduct and the lack of oversight that has enabled it, especially when it comes to targeting communities of color.

It is those same communities of color and their vocal street protests on issues of racial justice — from the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 to the more recent protests in the city over the outcome of the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the widely publicized Trayvon Martin trial — that Oakland police cite as reasons the spy center is needed. Additionally, the department actively has surveilled and infiltrated the city’s Occupy movement.

“I hope that we can make the city council understand the full implications of their decisions. If the city council [members] implement this surveillance center, they are responsible for putting all Oakland residents under the watch of a new ‘domestic security agency,’” Mary Madden, an organizer with the coalition, told Truthout in an email.

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