In 'Domain Awareness,' Detractors See Another NSA

Feb 21, 2014
Originally published on March 25, 2014 2:00 pm

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.

'A New Age' Of Policing

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 last summer's revelations of domestic spying by the National Security Agency, protesters started showing up en masse at Oakland City Council meetings. One signed in for the public comment period as "Edward Snowden"; another stood up to videorecord the council while supporters cheered and jeered. In November, protesters became so raucous, they forced the council to clear the hall.

"We're not just fighting for Oakland; we're fighting for everybody in the country," says Joshua Smith. He's one of the more computer-savvy activists against the DAC, which he sees as a part of a nationwide surveillance grid, funded by Homeland Security grants.

"Everything is IP-networked." Smith says. "Everything can be fibered straight to the White House if necessary. Straight to Langley."

Worries About Future Uses

That's been one of the most consistent criticisms of these domain awareness systems: they're flexible. They may start out combining video camera feeds with data from license plate readers, but once you have the platform running, police departments could plug in new features, such as social media scanners.

The backlash has made city officials reluctant to speak publicly about the DAC; staffers canceled an interview with NPR at the last minute. In the past, they've stressed the DAC's utility as an emergency response center.

But City Council members acknowledge the interest from the Oakland police. Council member Lynette McElhaney says the interim chief has said that the DAC could help "leverage" the small police force. McElhaney, who's been skeptical of the DAC, also says the police department doesn't expect miracles from the technology. The identification of suspects, she says, is "way more futuristic than what would be contemplated by the initial install."

And that's the heart of the controversy in Oakland: the uncertainty over what the DAC is really capable of. For instance, could the video feed be combined with facial recognition?

"No one trusts city staff at this point to tell the truth," says Brian Hofer, a spokesman for the Oakland Privacy Working Group, an organization that crystallized around the DAC debate. "The internal emails we've seen at least allow for the potential of [facial recognition] to be included. ... Whether that will happen for certain, it may require litigation and discovery to find out."

Some of the suspicion stems from how slow the city was to lay down the rules for the DAC — how long data can be saved, who can search them, and so on. Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, says those limits — the DAC "privacy policy" — should have come first.

"For what purpose are we adopting this?" asks Lye. If it's really for emergency response, she says, "that's a wonderful use of new technology. But then we need to configure the system so that it furthers those purposes, and doesn't surreptitiously further another entirely different purpose ... for example, warrantless mass surveillance."

City officials are working on a privacy policy for the DAC, but it may be too late, politically. On Tuesday, confronted by the usual crowd of protesters, the City Council decided to delay approval of the DAC's next phase. And some council members are talking about scaling back the project and limiting "domain awareness" to Oakland's port — even if it means losing out on some of the grant money from Homeland Security.

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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.