Friday, September 30, 2016
Domain Awareness Centers
The technology grew out of a growing level of sophisticated computer analytics that combined visual data with avail weather and traffic information. Shippers were able to see their ships, trucks and planes, track them as they moved with highly organized containers across their designated routes, and plan accordingly. But as the maze of information exploded, analysts suffered from TMI-syndrome. Too much information. So data aggregation, tracking, and analysis needed to be simplified with automated recommendations. Hey, that’s just shipping.
But we all know that “national security” has created a whole lot more in access to data – like the Web and all of our phone connections – with a whole lot in the way of automated analytics. Thank you Edward Snowden and Wikileaks… if you think they are owed thanks. Yet should you think that all of this sophisticated data culling has been relegated to federal agencies, think again. How about your local cops, particularly in bigger cities with larger crime problems and lots of cyber-needs, particularly when these analytics can make up for staffing shortages from budget cuts. What exactly can they get on the open market?
Let’s start with this little description from NPR back on February 21, 2014: “Police are like the rest of us; they suffer from information overload. The data pour in from 21st century sources ranging from license plate readers to Twitter. But as the information comes in, it hits an old-fashioned bottleneck: human beings.
“‘They all have access to different databases,’ says Dave Mosher, vice president of program management at Microsoft Services. He describes the typical law enforcement command center as a room full of people at computers. ‘And they all stand up and walk around and talk to each other and they'll say, 'Tell me about this,' or 'Tell me about that.'’ ’
“Microsoft believes it solved that bottleneck when it helped the New York Police Department build something called the Domain Awareness System. It's software that combines data streams and lets the computers look for what's important.
‘If I'm an officer, it alerts me,’ Mosher says. ‘[It] says, 'You might want to take a look at this, based on the rules you put into the system. This looks suspicious, do you agree?' ’… Microsoft is marketing a version of this to other police departments under the brand ‘AWARE.’ And it's not the only company getting into the business.
“The appeal is obvious, especially for cash-strapped, high-crime cities such as Oakland, Calif. City leaders there say they simply don't have the tax base to pay for the number of police officers they need, so they've looked toward ‘domain awareness’ as a kind of force multiplier… ‘We're not ever going to have the police department that we used to have,’ says Noel Gallo, a member of the City Council. ‘We're at a different age, a new age, that we have to have some other tools to deal with crime.’
“For the past couple of years, the city of Oakland has worked with the Port of Oakland to build its own version of the system. It's called the Domain Awareness Center, or DAC. The federal government is paying for it with Homeland Security grants. But as the project grew, so did opposition.” After all, “Oakland is a high-crime city, averaging 109 homicides a year for the past 45 years. Many residents and businesses have invested in their own security cameras and are happy to share their contents with law enforcement.” BBC.com, September 29th.
Opposition, eh? “A deprived port city, across the bay from San Francisco, with a history of high crime rates and radical politics, Oakland has seen its share of policing scandals over the years… Surveillance of ordinary citizens and protest groups - from the Black Panthers in the 1960s to Occupy Oakland in the 2000s - is nothing new in California's eighth largest city… ‘Police-community relations in Oakland are terrible,’ says Ali Winston, a reporter with the East Bay Express. ‘They have been terrible for a long time.’
“But Winston and his colleague Darwin BondGraham were still not fully prepared for what they would discover in the summer of 2012, when they were going through court records and council papers… ‘We saw some things that raised questions. Why are they running fibre optic cables out there? That kind of thing,’ says BondGraham… Winston recognised the name of a security company on a council agenda and knew immediately what they were dealing with - a Domain Awareness Centre.
“At some point, the city council decided to extend the system to cover the whole of Oakland and its population of 400,000 people… ‘The feeling from the port seemed to be, 'We are building these really cool systems, why don't we make them city-wide?',’ says BondGraham.
“Hundreds of new cameras would be installed across the city and data would be incorporated from licence plate readers, gunshot-detection microphones, social media, and, in later phases, facial recognition software and programmes that can recognise people from the way they walk.
“The city said it needed an early warning system to give ‘first responders’ a head start when dealing with emergencies like chemical spills and earthquakes, as well as major crime and terrorist incidents.
“But privacy campaigners in the city were alarmed at the thought of the Oakland Police Department having access to an all-pervasive real-time surveillance network. Particularly one that did not have a policy on what data would be stored and for how long… The public backlash began in the summer of 2013, just as Edward Snowden's first leaks about the National Security Agency's spying activities were hitting the headlines.
“Snowden ignited a ‘huge’ public debate about privacy and data, says Brian Hofer, a former civil rights attorney who led efforts to curb the DAC, which had barely registered as an issue when the plan to expand it citywide had first come before the city council… Hofer was a relative latecomer to the Oakland Privacy campaign, deciding to get involved after reading a December 2013 article in the East Bay Express, based on thousands of leaked emails between city officials, which suggested that the real purpose of the DAC was not to combat violent crime but to monitor and track political protesters.
“He was among dozens of Oakland residents to speak out against the DAC at a marathon city council meeting on 4 March, 2014, at which the fate of the system would be decided… By now, stopping the Oakland ‘spy centre’ had become a cause celebre among former Occupy protesters. Some of them waited their turn, their faces covered by masks, to vent their anger.
“The meeting also heard from members of the African American community, who argued that the DAC would be used to justify police violence in black neighbourhoods, and from Oakland's large Muslim community, who were concerned that the DAC would be used to spy on them.
“What linked them all was a visceral distrust of the authorities and a feeling that they did not want to live in a city where they would be constantly monitored as they went about their business. A PowerPoint presentation by city officials on the alleged benefits of the DAC did nothing to mollify them.
“With the city council tied on the issue, Oakland's then mayor Jean Quan, who had originally been in favour of the DAC, used her casting vote to back a motion that would dramatically scale it back so that it would be focused solely on the port, as originally planned… The public gallery erupted with cries of ‘shame’ - the majority of those present that night had wanted the DAC scrapped altogether.” BBC.com. The battle is anything but settled, as forces on both sides of the issue re-ignite the controversy, playing out rather nastily in the local press.
If you believe that digging into personal data is all conducted for social good, the Associated Press, as reported on CBS on September 30th, produced evidence that hundreds of police officers have been disciplined for using their search capacity for personal reasons, ranging from tracking romantic interests (and some using that information to harass and badger them), family members, and people against whom they harbor a grudge. Those are just the ones who were caught and punished. In some cases, officers were even encouraged to “practice” searches on people they knew. There has to be a balance somewhere. Who looks out for “us”? No easy answers.
With guns everywhere and terrorism mounting, Americans have some very tough questions to deal with. The real battle is between individual rights and someone’s perceived notion of what’s best for society at large. Surveillance does not sit well under the cold eyes of the U.S. Constitution (between the 4th and 14th Amendments), but without drilled-down surveillance, terrorism has a much better free hand.
We are going to be able to see just about everything that someone in a connected world says, does and experiences. Computers easily turn into two-way cameras; data can be sucked out of hard drives and large servers with little in the way of barriers. Privacy is vaporizing fast. Is that OK with you? Are you remotely concerned that “someone” you do not know, with an agenda you cannot find, is going to use that data to make decisions about you, your livelihood and possibly your freedom.
I’m Peter Dekom, and living on an island off the grid is sounding increasingly appealing to me.