In 'Domain Awareness,' Detractors See Another NSA : All Tech Considered Police are building software systems to integrate their data flows — from cameras to license plate scanners and social media — to better identify threats and suspects. But there's a privacy backlash.
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In 'Domain Awareness,' Detractors See Another NSA

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In 'Domain Awareness,' Detractors See Another NSA

In 'Domain Awareness,' Detractors See Another NSA

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The latest big idea in police work is something called domain awareness. It involves integrating all of the data streams coming into a police department and analyzing them for patterns. New York City pioneered this kind of system and other states have followed their lead, often with little public notice. But NPR's Martin Kaste reports that privacy fears in one city have provoked an angry backlash.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Cops are swamped with data. Take a ride in a squad care some time. You'll be amazed at how much they have to keep track of. There's 911 calls and burglar alarms, even emails. It can all be kind of overwhelming. But there may be a solution: more technology. Dave Mosher is with Microsoft which helped to build New York's domain awareness system. It's a system that basically captures all that information and then analyzes it for you.

DAVE MOSHER: If I'm an officer, it alerts me and says, hey, look, you may want to take a look at this, based on the rules that you put into the system. This looks suspicious. Do you agree?

KASTE: So if you have, say, a homicide, the software could look for suspects by combining data from security cameras and license plate readers or even from Twitter. It's fast and it's cheaper than sending in a dozen officers to canvass the neighborhood and that has a lot of appeal in a city like Oakland, California.

ISSAN NAGI: I think it's brilliant.

KASTE: Issan Nagi(ph) is downtown for her lunch break.

NAGI: Because some of these people here are, how do I say this delicately, bunch of thugs.

KASTE: Oakland has struggled with high rates of violent crime and an understaffed police department. At city hall, council member Noel Gallo says domain awareness may be part of the solution.

NOEL GALLO: We're at a different age, a new age, that we have to have some other tools to deal with crime. We're not ever going to have the police department that we used to have.

KASTE: So for the past couple of years, the city has worked with the port to build a combined domain awareness Center for Oakland. It's based in a drab building downtown with security cameras, but no sign on the door. There is a call box.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is the office of emergency services.

KASTE: Got it. And is this also the place where the DAC is going to be or not?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm not sure of that.

KASTE: Those initials, DAC or the DAC, have become politically toxic in Oakland lately, despite the hopes of boosters like Gallo. This was the scene when the city council discussed the system last fall.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I plan to call the question. Can you guys hear me? Can you hear me?

KASTE: The uproar was fueled by the revelations of domestic spying by the NSA and fears of similar data vacuuming on a local level.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK. We're clearing the room. The item is over.

KASTE: City officials kept insisting that the DAC was not a spy center, that it was meant to coordinate first responders in an emergency, but activist Joshua Smith does not buy it.

JOSHUA SMITH: Everything is IP networked. All video can be fibered straight to the White House if necessary, straight to Langley.

KASTE: He says the danger of these systems is their flexibility. You can always plug into some new features later on, say, facial recognition. And he thinks that information could be misused and shared with the likes of the Department of Homeland Security.

SMITH: What it's ultimately about is the DHS is funding a nationwide surveillance grid. It's coming to many cities. It's coming rapidly so we're just not fighting for Oakland. We're fighting for everybody in the country.

KASTE: Homeland Security is funding the DAC in Oakland. It's a grant for port security. But it's harder to track DHS spending on this nationally. There's an alphabet soup of grant programs and the building blocks of domain awareness come in many guises. Sometimes it's just new cameras or computers. Oakland city council member Lynette McElhaney says it's hard for police departments to turn that money down, even when they have different priorities.

LYNETTE MCELHANEY: If the feds really wanted to help me, it wouldn't be around a DAC, right? Multiple millions of dollars put into technology. I'd add more technicians, more investigators because it's people that really get to solving crime.

KASTE: But the real issue dogging the DAC is uncertainty. What will the software be allowed to do? The city has been slow coming up with a privacy policy for the system. Linda Lye is with the ACLU of Northern California. She says cities need to set those rules before they build these centers.

LINDA LYE: We're not trying to slow the advance of technology, but we want to make sure that technology is used for its intended purposes and that the technology doesn't get the better of us.

KASTE: In Oakland, it may be too late for a privacy policy. Under pressure, the city council is starting to turn against the DAC. It's delayed voting on the next phase of the project and there's now talk of limiting domain awareness to the port, even if that means leaving some Homeland Security money on the table. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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