Watchdogs Challenge Surveillance in Berkeley

surveillance cameras
Surveillance cameras around the US are feeding images into national fusion centers. Photo credit: Diogo Duarte / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 16 minutes

Are the agencies and tools intended to combat international terrorism being used more broadly against US citizens?

Ultra-liberal Berkeley, California, has been the scene of provocative demonstrations staged by right-wing groups in recent years that have sparked clashes with anti-fascist groups.

And the Berkeley police secretly filmed the protests, using high-tech surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition and movement detection software, as confirmed by the activist group Oakland Privacy.

The Avigilon cameras were loaned by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, one of more than 70 regional “fusion centers” established across the nation since 9/11 — ostensibly to address international terrorism.

Tracy Rosenberg, a co-founder of Oakland Privacy, explains in this WhoWhatWhy podcast that Berkeley acquired its own Avigilon cameras, which were installed in San Pablo Park after a rash of gun violence nearby.

These cameras clearly conflict with Berkeley’s own surveillance transparency ordinance, and the city council is considering a ban on facial recognition tools — but with a proposed exemption for the system at San Pablo Park.

Rosenberg is critical of the “mission creep” represented by the use of anti-terrorism agencies and hardware on activities protected by the First Amendment, and comments on recent news about the Oregon Titan Fusion Center’s monitoring of individuals and groups who are opposed to the construction of an offshore liquefied natural gas platform at Coos Bay, Oregon.

She also talks about the recent use in New York of “reverse search warrants” in the case of the far-right extremist group known as the Proud Boys, where prosecutors ordered Google to disclose all active electronic devices in a particular geographical area after members of the group skirmished with unidentified left-wing activists.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. One of America’s leftier cities has been the scene of right-wing protests and it has led city leaders to use surveillance systems, sometimes borrowed from the Joint Terrorism Task Force and other agencies that were set up to address international terrorism, not first amendment activism. Tracy Rosenberg is the Executive Director of Media Alliance, they are a media reform and advocacy group based here in the San Francisco area, and she’s also a co-founder of Oakland Privacy. Tracy, thanks for being with us today.
Tracy Rosenberg: Thank you, Peter. Happy to be here.
Peter B. Collins: Tell us how long have you been concerned about expansive surveillance in the East Bay of the San Francisco area?
Tracy Rosenberg: Well, a pretty long time. Of course like everyone else, I was blown away by the 2013 Snowden revelations. I think for a long time as an organization concerned with digital platforms and the internet, we were seeing how the original promise of the internet that everyone would be connected to everyone and have access to everything, was really being turned around on us so that what was supposed to be something that people could use to reach out was becoming a tool for them to be watched.
Peter B. Collins: Certainly.
Tracy Rosenberg: In the East Bay of course, in 2012, we became aware of plans in Oakland for a citywide surveillance gauntlet funded by the department of Homeland Security, and Oakland Privacy, the anti-surveillance coalition that I co-founded, took an active role in stopping that.
Peter B. Collins: And they had plans for a master control room that essentially would surveil every block of the city of Oakland, and Oakland has its issues, but the idea that setting up a massive surveillance system is going to address them seems pretty far- fetched. Now, more recently in 2018, last year, there was a planned rally in Berkeley called ‘No to Marxism’. So we have right wing activists come for their first amendment expression, and there was concern based on past skirmishes at the UC Berkeley campus and on the streets of Berkeley, that there would be a response from Antifa. And so what did the Berkeley Police Department – and Berkeley is the city I refer to as the ‘leftiest’ town in America – what did they do, Tracy Rosenberg?
Tracy Rosenberg: Well, as it turned out, yes, there had been a substantial amount of what we could politely call street brawling that had happened in 2017. Basically right wing groups put out a call for folks to come to Berkeley, the most progressive blue city in the US, and speak out for white supremacy, con race hatred, and the city of Berkeley responded. People came out, they organized themselves in anti-fascist groups and they basically said, “No, not here, not in our town,” and there was some fighting. In 2018, one of the folks who had been involved with this, I think her name is Amber something, said, “Let’s do it again.” And she called her rally ‘Say No to Marxism’. And of course local anti-fascist groups organized and said, “No, we don’t want you here. Not in Berkeley.”
Tracy Rosenberg: The administration of Berkeley, while saying all of the right things about first amendment protections and setting up ‘United Against Hate’ signs all over town and basically supporting the idea that we don’t want these kinds of activities here but everyone has a right to express themselves, behind closed doors went to the department of Homeland Security – we have a fusion center here in the Bay area, it’s called NCRIC, Northern California Regional Intelligence Center – and secretly set up high tech cameras with appearance detection and motion search capabilities and set them up secretly all over town.
Peter B. Collins: And these systems, which are borrowed or can be borrowed by local law enforcement agencies from these so-called fusion centers, and they’re more than 70 of them that have been set up across the country to coordinate law enforcement activities. And I refer to it as vertical integration, where the command and control of the federal government is informed by the local collection of information, much of it legitimate, some of it not, by the foot soldiers of local police departments and the collaboration between the fusion centers and local police, occurs out of the site of the public. And when the Berkeley Police Department borrowed this facial recognition camera system and installed it in public spaces in Berkeley, did they notify the public, Tracy?
Tracy Rosenberg: Absolutely not. There was not a word. When we’re talking about fusion centers, we’re talking about a national network that was set up after the events of 9/11, and they were largely set up to what we would call gather information from a variety of sources, both public and private, and fuse it together with the idea of doing sophisticated relational mapping, and what we often call guilt by association or relation basically to take your targets and look at all of their connections and associations and liaisons, and try to basically set up webs. This is very much what, for example, the technology company, Palentir’s, says that they do with their software, that it is essentially super sophisticated relational and associational mapping.
Peter B. Collins: Understood.
Tracy Rosenberg: And the fusion centers were basically set up to be physical manifestations of that. In terms of Berkeley, the interesting thing was not only did they not tell anyone, but they actually had a law on the books which we advocated for, a surveillance transparency ordinance that specifically required them to get city council consent before they took actions like this and have some kind of public hearing where they put out what they were planning to do and the city council affirmatively said, “Yes, we will let this happen in Berkeley.” Never happened.
Peter B. Collins: So from the accounts that I’ve received, and tell me if I have this correctly, following the deployment of these devices, of which the brand name is Avigilon, the city of Berkeley then moved to continue to use cameras after there had been some shootings in San Pablo Park in August of 2018. What can you tell us about that?
Tracy Rosenberg: Yeah, that’s actually how we found out. The cameras, Avigilon is the company and they are Motorola products, and you can look them up and see that they have pretty advanced analytical capabilities. NCRIC as we know, also has an extensive facial recognition service that it offers to local law enforcement agencies. So what happened in terms of the chain of information is that Berkeley unfortunately had some shootings that appeared to be con-gang-related in September and October of 2018 in a recreational area called San Pablo Park. It has some tennis courts, some soccer fields and some baseball fields, and so lots of kids and lots of families, and the shootings were scary. They happened in broad daylight, late afternoon, there were bullets flying. And so the city of course said, “We have to do something.” And what they felt would address the situation was to put in security cameras.
Tracy Rosenberg: That’s not automatic, but the question becomes what sort of cameras with what sort of capacities? What are you doing with the data? Who has access to it? They short circuited a lot of those questions. So after the fact we started saying, “Okay, what kind of cameras did you put in and what sort of capacities do they have and where’s the data?” And in so doing, we did what they call a public records request. They sent us a whole bunch of stuff, and one of those things referred to the Homeland Security fusion center having access to the cameras. They had a login for the cameras and we said, “How is this even possible?” Then they said, “Oh, not those cameras in San Pablo Park, the cameras that we used in August for the free speech protest.” And then we said, “What?” So that’s how we found out.
Peter B. Collins: So Tracy, let me pause for a moment just to observe that we, just in this initial description, see a very significant and troubling mission creep because we were told that these entities, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the fusion centers, this renewed collaboration with police departments up and down the ladder, that all of this is only focused to protect us from foreign terrorists. And yet we see it routinely deployed against first amendment activists, and a little bit later we’ll talk about what’s going on in the state of Oregon related to protests over the Coos Bay LNG proposed facility, but we see a circumstance where you might be sympathetic to city officials because of the skirmishes between right-wingers and Antifa that had preceded, and so people tend to accept that, and then we see this normalized and these devices are used for ordinary criminal activity. And I’m not rationalizing gang activity or diminishing the impact on victims of a criminal behavior, but these technologies and these legal authorities were set up only to focus on international terrorism and we are seeing it focused at the local level on free speech activities. This is deeply troubling.
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, in every sense there is a war comes home, which is the expression. But the fundamental problem here is what is the definition of terrorism? We think that we know what it means, but we see over and over again that it’s the ever expanding word. And we’ve seen this when we push these agencies on what do you mean by terrorism? And they’ve brought up terms like black identity extremist. We don’t know what that means. What we do know what it means, it means black lives matter activists, but how is that terrorism?
Tracy Rosenberg: And then we take a look at this Berkeley and we see Antifa folks who really are just community members who are standing up to what they see as fascist creep and a normalization of hate language and white supremacy clang, which I think is dangerous and rightfully so. Is that terrorism? And when you talk about the history of social change in the US, things like nonviolent civil disobedience, we have Mario Savio in Berkeley saying, “Throw your body against the gears of the machine to make injustice stop.” And these kinds of activities become basically inflated or defined as terrorism. And then you have an international intelligence mechanism that is essentially turned against nonviolent social change activities in the US, and this is an existential threat to any kind of social change or social progress in cognitive study.
Peter B. Collins: And Tracy, this just strikes me as completely antithetical to the zeitgeist of Berkeley. The city has a young, nominally progressive mayor, Jesse Arreguin, and progressive council members. There are ordinances that prohibit this kind of surveillance practice, and they even went so far as to exempt the police department from certain facial recognition limitations that they passed in a recent ordinance. So the contradictions-
Tracy Rosenberg: Well, we actually haven’t done that yet, but they are scheduled to do so on October 15th.
Peter B. Collins: I see. Okay.
Tracy Rosenberg: And so the question here is you’re unanimously voting for these things and you’re saying all of the right things, but behind our backs, you’re doing things that are entirely different.
Peter B. Collins: So is there a disconnect between the elected leadership of Berkeley and its police department?
Tracy Rosenberg: That certainly seems to be the case and it’s probably a more profound disconnect than that. What we often find is that elected officials, no matter how progressive, are very easily shepherded by law enforcement and by the forces behind law enforcement, which include our federal government and the intelligence infrastructure and the stuff coming down from national, to basically turn on their head everything that they say in public. So because our surveillance ordinance passed unanimously, it wasn’t a contested vote, it wasn’t a five to four squeaker kind of thing, it passed unanimously.
Tracy Rosenberg: The city was 100% committed in public to making sure that transparency and consent were the basis for any surveillance activity by their police department, which is right and appropriate for a progressive city. And then what turned out is that what they said and what they voted for on the surface was extremely different to what they did when they felt that they were under pressure. When they felt that there were protests in the city that were getting out of hand, when they felt that there was gang activity that they were frightened by, they basically took all those words and threw them out with the garbage. And this was not just words, it was municipal law. So we really are seeing, and I don’t want to go too far here, but we are seeing lawless government in action. We are seeing the surveillance state overpower the actual law. They are taking those kinds of steps to say when things happen, when crimes are committed, when there are problems, we don’t have to follow the law and we’re not going to.
Peter B. Collins: Tracy, in the discovery by Oakland privacy under the public records laws, did you under… did you find any other activities that raised eyebrows? For example, has Berkeley borrowed a StingRay technology from the JTTF or the Northern California Fusion Center, to your knowledge?
Tracy Rosenberg: Right, at this point in time, I have to answer these kinds of questions sort of not yet. In other words, we haven’t found out about it yet because I feel like anything’s possible at this point because we were genuinely shocked by the NCRIC.
Peter B. Collins: All right. And one of the other areas that has concerned me that surfaced recently, and I don’t know if this drew your attention, but in the trial of the Proud Boys street fight in New York city, the district attorney used a reverse search warrant. And it was served on Google, and Google was forced to divulge to the district attorney, the location of cell phones in a certain designated area and also to report on any activity from phones or other devices in a certain geographical zone. So this created a technology dragnet, a fence, if you will, around a certain geographical area, and all of the people inside that zone were treated as suspects when there were eight or ten of the Proud Boys and there were somewhere around a dozen of the Antifa people who took them on, and the claim was that they were trying to identify the Antifa people because they were the victims of the Proud Boys, and they wanted them to testify at this trial.
 
Peter B. Collins: And I just found this astounding that they could argue that despite the clear language of the fourth amendment requiring probable cause and specificity, that they were forcing Google to cough up information under this bizarre reverse search warrant.
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, to be 100% clear, this is sort of the guilty until proven innocent theory of law enforcement that basically says if you’re in the proximity and something happened, we can sweep you up. And that is fundamentally constitutionally unsound. And we have it perpetuating through law enforcement on a broad basis. What happened in New York [inaudible 19:30] location data is of course extremely sensitive because it’s literally physically where you are, and the basic premise of collecting it really has to be probable cause. It has to be significant reasons to believe that you personally have committed some act of wrongdoing, and once we step away from that guilty until proven innocent is not a fact anymore for any of us.
Peter B. Collins: And Tracy, to your knowledge, have you seen any other deployment of a reverse search warrant since the New York incident?
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, there have been several all over the country. The warrants are difficult to uncover. They have had to go to court to get them, but the courts have been liberal in distributing them and they have been not only for first amendment type activities like these Proud Boy brawls, but also for traditional street crime. There was one that involved a bank robbery in the Midwest, and again it picked up the information for anyone who was outside of a bank in a downtown area over an hour-long period of time, which is an extraordinary assortment of people who were swept into this investigation with no consent or agreement to participate on their own part. They were not asked. And I want to make it clear that while Google is under pressure and the courts have been helping them, they are not required to do this. They are making a choice not to fight these kinds of court orders when they get them, or not to fight them hard enough.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and the tech companies turn these government requests for information into a revenue center. They charge the government to cough up our personal data.
Tracy Rosenberg: Yup, basically you can fight or you can turn it into a capitalist opportunity.
Peter B. Collins: Tracy, I want to get your comment on what’s going on in Oregon as well. They have a fusion center called TITAN Fusion Center, and it collaborates with the Southwest Oregon Joint Task Force, a similar structure as we’ve described here in the Bay Area, and I’m familiar with the situation in Coos Bay, Oregon because for many years, I hosted a syndicated radio show with an affiliate KBBR in Coos Bay. So I am familiar with the long running efforts to install an offshore platform to load liquefied natural gas, LNG, onto ships for export. And environmentalists have protested this and fought it for years, and now with the Trump administration just bulldozing the efforts to block the Keystone XL pipeline and related issues, there is renewed interest on the part of the industry to build this Jordan Cove energy project, and before any serious protests have begun, these elements of our law enforcement system have begun monitoring potential protest groups and tracking their activities, harvesting social media messages and emails, and all of this is integrated similar to what we described, with the upper reaches of the federal law enforcement system.
Peter B. Collins: And we also see in Coos Bay where the police are actively collaborating with the private security company that is hired by the project’s owner, which is a company called Pembina. So we’ve seen this happen before where the elements of law enforcement were used to monitor and impact the protest activities of occupy activists back during the Obama administration, and particularly in Phoenix, I saw evidence of the way the government agencies were directly communicating with the private security officers of banks in ways that are really problematic.
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, ecoterrorism is another one of those categories that has been made up by the intelligence infrastructure to conflate first amendment type activities and social protest movements with terrorism. There’s no actual connection. What we’re seeing is what we saw back in the ’60s and ’70s where the CIA and even going back a bit, J. Edgar Hoover, and all of that was basically turned on the domestic social change movements of the day instead of doing what the CIA is supposed to do, which is pay attention to foreign countries and American interests overseas. And the federal government largely didn’t do much about it although they eventually issued a Church Committee and said after the fact, this was bad and we shouldn’t do this, but we’re doing it once again. And in this iteration what you could call COINTELPRO 2.0, which I think is perfectly valid or maybe 3.0, at this point, we have a significant amount of cooperation and facilitation from the private sector where the powers of the tech companies have largely been put at the disposal of the COINTELPRO type operations.
Peter B. Collins: Yes, and this is coupled with much looser standards because the trigger point for being under surveillance as a first amendment activist, should be much higher than what’s being used, but they don’t even approach probable cause. They use what are called suspicious activity reports, and often they simply make up a potential for violence that has not been exhibited in any way that can be objectively observed.
Tracy Rosenberg: No, the standard of course should be violence. And when we call violence blocking a freeway or blocking a pipeline truck, then we really have jumped the shark in terms of what violence actually is. These are things that inconvenience business and potentially they inconvenience you if you’re trying to get home from work and the freeway is blocked, but they are not violent activities which cost you life and limb. So that’s a real confusion of language. One of the fusion centers remarkable characteristics is that one of the activities that they took on was basically what we in grade school call tattle tailing with these suspicious activity reports, which were basically set up as opportunities for businesses, individuals, law enforcement, really anyone, to file a report saying, “I saw something and it’s suspicious.” It’s the parallel of those alerts that you hear in airports.
Tracy Rosenberg: If you see a bag and it’s unattended, say something, and for years people would put their luggage down and turnaround and an alarm would go off. But basically suspicious activity reports, and there was an audit done, the last one that I read was in 2014. They go out to the fusion centers, have basically been an agglomeration of people basically reporting all kinds of strange things, and our taxpayer money being used to investigate all of this largely to not much effect. For example, there was one I was taking a look at at the 2014 Fusion Center Report that went to the Senate that involve some guys who were fishing off the coast of Florida, and the reason that their behavior was suspicious was because they were fishing in a place that was known not to have too much fish. No, seriously.
Peter B. Collins: That’s suspicious.
Tracy Rosenberg: I’m like, “Our taxpayer dollars were used to investigate these two guys and as it turned out, the results of the lengthy investigation were that they were bad fishermen.” They were fishing in a bad place, but this…
Peter B. Collins: And they failed to buy a fish finder.
Tracy Rosenberg: Yeah, but this is insane. And the Senate said something like, “Look, we didn’t set up 73 fusion centers to investigate this kind of garbage.” But the whole Starz basis is, spy on your neighbors and report them, and we see this now technology jumping on this with being in the automated doorbells next door and basically setting up a culture where we’re all spying on each other and turning each other in for who knows what?
Peter B. Collins: Well, Tracy, I want to thank you for your vigilance, fighting for the Bill of Rights and our freedoms in this country. Does Oakland Privacy have a website or any other public contact that people might want to look into?
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, we do. We’re at www.oaklandprivacy.org. We do encourage people to check out the website. You can contact us directly at contact@oaklandprivacy.org, and for folks in Berkeley, we’re going to be doing a little press conference event in front of the next Berkeley city council meeting on October 15th at 1231 Addison Street, which is the BUSD auditorium, which is where the city council meeting will be held and we encourage people to join us there to basically say, “Berkeley, what the hell.”
Peter B. Collins: Tracy Rosenberg, thanks again for your vigilance and thanks for talking with us today. Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, with Tracy Rosenberg. Send your comments to peter@peterbcollins.com. And I’d appreciate any contribution you can make to support the investigative journalism work here at WhoWhatWhy.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Old White Truck / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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