Smart Cities: Making Government Accountability Work


Earlier this week, we collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to discuss how cities employing smart technologies can ensure they do not devolve into “surveillance cities”. In this post, we highlight a city that has successfully engaged in surveillance reform by prioritizing transparency and accountability.

Brian Hofer is a Commissioner for the City of Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission (OPAC). One of the first commissions of its kind in the nation, the Commission provides technical assistance and advice to the City of Oakland on the purchase and use of surveillance equipment and technology.

Hofer first became involved with Oakland Privacy (not to be confused with OPAC), a volunteer coalition working to defend the right to privacy and ensure transparency around the use of surveillance techniques and equipment, to dig into the Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The DAC was planned to be a surveillance hub, integrating public and private cameras, automated license plate readers, facial recognition software, and other sensors, intended to improve the response time of first responders. Despite the magnitude of surveillance proposed by the project, few Oakland residents seemed to be aware of the DAC and its potential consequences. With the 2013 Snowden leaks in mind, Hofer sought to increase public accountability around government decisions to implement programs like the DAC.

Oakland Privacy put a halt to the development of the DAC and support the passing of a City Council ordinance creating a citizen’s commission for the purpose of creating a privacy policy–the Oakland Privacy Advisor Commission. The Commission is composed of nine members, including volunteers nominated by City Council members, a Mayoral appointee, the Chief Privacy Officer, and a representative from the police department.

The OPAC’s work yielded in the development and passage of the Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance. Modeled after the ACLU Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) Model Ordinance Bill, the Surveillance Ordinance recommends a free flow of information prior to the approval and use of surveillance technology, ensuring the public and their elected representatives can engage in a fully informed cost-benefit analysis prior to approving any surveillance usage.

The standing Privacy Advisory Commission is the lynchpin to Oakland’s success; city officials interested in acquiring surveillance technology work with the Commission to develop a mandatory Surveillance Impact Report and a Surveillance Use Policy. The Commission then provides recommendations to the City Council, which is then able to make an informed decision as to whether a surveillance project should be approved for funding and implementation. As the Commission rolls these processes out, they can keep track of best practices and seek solutions to new challenges to ensure a seamless process for all stakeholders involved. For example, the Commission has created the Surveillance Technology Assessment Questionnaire (STAQ) to make it easy for city officials to solicit the information necessary for the timely completion and public release of the Surveillance Impact Report.

While detractors may fear the potential slowdown resulting from funneling all projects through one committee, the city may actually experience greater efficiency in the long run by creating a centralized repository of surveillance projects and Privacy Impact Assessments. If similar technology requests spring up between different departments, the OPAC has the ability to look to previous research conducted on the technology to more easily provide recommendations to the City Council.

Oakland has also pushed to require that city officials retroactively create Surveillance Impact Assessments and gain City Council approval for the use and purchase of all technology–even those purchased and implemented prior to the passing of the ordinance, removing discontinuity in the implementation of the policy. The publicly released privacy impact report outlines the intended impacts of the technology in question, the resulting adverse impact risks on civil liberties and civil rights, and mechanisms for minimizing these risks.

Oakland is further establishing a precedent by mandating that contracts cannot contain Non-Disclosure Agreements, an essential step in ensuring we value the public’s right to access information over corporate interests. This is to increase transparency around data collection, usage, and sharing. Hofer anticipates this will begin changing conversations with third-party vendors and expectations of what the surveillance technology contract looks like.

Hofer is exceptionally proud of the ways the OPAC has been able to push for transparency and public disclosure. They have advocated for longer notice periods (compared to the California Brown Act which only mandates a 72 hour notice period) to ensure they can reach more residents and solicit more feedback through open discussion sessions.

Hofer says, “Reach out to as many stakeholders as possible, as early as possible. This will prevent blowback from an unwanted project (or feature, e.g. facial rec), will get more buy-in as the public has input, [and] gives it more ownership.” The Commission has built partnerships with community-based organizations and advocacy partners to ensure community feedback mechanisms are accessible to a diverse population.

Transparency must continue throughout the implementation of the project and Hofer advocates for annual reporting after the approval of technology use to ensure civil liberties are being protected and the taxpayer’s dollar is being used wisely.

While a citizen-driven commission like the OPAC represents the ideal for transparency and public accountability, it is not the only way. For cities that might be interested in pushing for surveillance reform, Hofer recommends enacting a CCOPS style ordinance. “It really is pragmatic, politically viable, and meaningful reform. Also, pieces of the process already exist, such as going to a governing body for funding or policy approval. CCOPS just operationalizes or streamlines many existing functions into a coherent framework. It really is elegant.”

Building transparency and accountability, beyond ensuring the democratic process remains intact, renews trust in government and law enforcement, especially in places where massive surveillance has sowed distrust. The City of Oakland anticipates the creation of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, the Surveillance Ordinance and all it entails (publicly released Surveillance Impact Report, Technology Use Policy, and Annual Reports) will be instrumental in rebuilding community trust.