Berkeley Fails to Learn Surveillance Lessons Within 'Oppenheimer'

Aug 05, 2023
Matt Cagle

In Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ there is a scene where government agents creep outside a gathering of UC Berkeley-affiliated activists to write down the license plates of those parked outside the event. The FBI used this surveillance to suppress worker organizing, retaliate against movement leaders and pursue suspected communists – including J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. 

Instead of learning from this history, the City of Berkeley has taken a step towards repeating it. 

Last week, the Berkeley City Council voted to move forward with a mass vehicle surveillance network that will place residents and visitors under continuous automated watch as they drive around the city. This is a spying infrastructure that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI could only dream about. 

The American Civil Liberties Union and many local residents opposed the proposal.

Government surveillance powers have undergone a massive technological jump since the dawn of the Atomic Age. Today, the government no longer needs to deploy its limited personnel to physically track someone; a process that was costly and time-consuming. 

Instead, modern police departments routinely and easily blanket communities with technologies like automated license plate readers (ALPR). This surveillance system is composed of high-speed cameras mounted in a fixed location or atop police cars moving through the community that automatically capture all license plates that come into view, recording the exact location, date, and time that the vehicles pass by.

Berkeley is not alone. Across California, hundreds of police agencies line the roads with thousands of readers that collect information on millions of drivers across the state. This sensitive location information can reveal the private details of our lives: where we live and work, our shopping habits and even the kinds of medical services we receive. 

Despite the lack of evidence showing that ALPRs actually prevent or reduce crime, elected officials continue to barrel ahead with these programs. We understand the motivation to address residents’ public safety concerns – people deserve to feel safe. 

But unfortunately, reaching for the low-hanging fruit of dragnet surveillance backfires. 

Indeed, Bay Area ALPRs have actually endangered people’s safety on multiple occasions, with police pulling over Black motorists and holding them at gunpoint due to technological errors and misuse. On top of this, scanners are often predominantly installed in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, reinforcing historical segregation and amplifying disparities in policing and incarceration. 

If the history of US surveillance proves anything, it's that the government routinely turns its spying powers against movements for justice and already-marginalized people. In Oppenheimer, it may have been labor organizers and communists, but today it's the unhoused, immigrants, people of color and those seeking abortion and gender affirming care. 

We’re already seeing the consequences. 

Police agencies have used ALPR systems to monitor congregants at mosques and attendees of political gatherings

Many police departments also share the driver locations recorded by ALPRs with agencies far and wide, allowing distant government agents to query a plate and potentially pull up a map of a person’s driving habits. 

In 2019, an investigation by the ACLU of Northern California revealed how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses this information to target and deport immigrants across the United States. Two years later, community activists sued Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle for illegally sharing millions of local drivers’ license plates and location data with hundreds of federal and out-of-state agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

The dangers have only grown in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in “Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” which overturned Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of precedent guaranteeing the constitutional right to abortion. 

In May, the ACLU of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation sent letters to over 70 California agencies demanding they stop sharing driver locations with anti-abortion states. The letters explained how driver information can be exploited by prosecutors seeking to target people traveling to California for medical care.

The only surefire way to prevent surveillance from being turned against the community is to not build these systems or collect sensitive information in the first place. Californians concerned about ALPR proposals in their own neighborhoods can use the ACLU of Northern California’s surveillance toolkit to organize and fight back.

We are disappointed that Berkeley approved a surveillance program that goes against its values, ignores history and poses a threat to the civil rights and freedom of community members. 

Berkeley’s approval came with the condition that it be reevaluated in two years. Because of that deadline and because Berkeley is a city with a surveillance oversight ordinance, community members will have an opportunity to dismantle it. 

It is our sincere hope that they do. 

As ‘Oppenheimer’ warned, if you give the government too much power, it will be misused. Instead of ignoring the past by enacting a program that endangers our civil rights, Berkeley should make the responsible decision and lay down this system of mass spying.