San Francisco cops want real-time access to private security cameras for surveillance

ACLU hits back at 'unprecedented power grab'

San Francisco lawmakers are mulling a proposed law that would allow police to use private security cameras – think: those in residential doorbells, medical clinics, and retail shops – in real time for surveillance purposes.

The US city's Rules Committee was due to vote on the draft ordinance on Monday, and this was pushed out by at least a week by the panel; its members indicated they would vote on an amended proposal July 18 at the soonest. 

Matt Cagle, an attorney for the ACLU, called the proposal a "power grab" by the SF cops. "It is rare for a police agency to seek to tap into privately owned cameras — I haven't seen that in California before," he told The Register. "This is the police seeking permission to proactively and affirmatively go out to private camera owners and say hey, can we live-stream your cameras? This is unprecedented in the city's history."

The proposal [PDF] expands San Francisco's 2019 surveillance ordinance, which, among other things, requires the police to seek authorization from the public and elected officials before acquiring and deploying surveillance systems. So if it weren't for this law, the cops could monitor citizens without the public even knowing.

The 2019 law also limited the cops' access to and usage of real-time video footage from things like Internet-of-Things cameras and security CCTV, and the police department and mayor say this hamstrings their ability to fight crime.

The new proposal – championed by Mayor London Breed after November's wild weekend of orchestrated burglaries and theft in the San Francisco Bay Area – would authorize the police department to use non-city-owned security cameras and camera networks to live monitor "significant events with public safety concerns" and ongoing felony or misdemeanor violations.

Currently, the police can only request historical footage from private cameras related to specific times and locations, rather than blanket monitoring. Mayor Breed also complained the police can only use real-time feeds in emergencies involving "imminent danger of death or serious physical injury."

If approved, the draft ordinance would also allow SFPD to collect historical video footage to help conduct criminal investigations and those related to officer misconduct. The draft law currently stands as the following, which indicates the cops can broadly ask for and/or get access to live real-time video streams:

The proposed Surveillance Technology Policy would authorize the Police Department to use surveillance cameras and surveillance camera networks owned, leased, managed, or operated by non-City entities to: (1) temporarily live monitor activity during exigent circumstances, significant events with public safety concerns, and investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations; (2) gather and review historical video footage for the purposes of conducting a criminal investigation; and (3) gather and review historical video footage for the purposes of an internal investigation regarding officer misconduct.

Obtaining video footage from private security cameras has real public-safety benefits and would help officers arrest drug dealers and looters in real time, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told lawmakers on Monday. 

"What we'd like to do is be able to, in the appropriate circumstances, live monitor this activity as it's occurring, so we can have a better chance of apprehending those committing those acts," he said.

What we'd like to do is be able to, in the appropriate circumstances, live monitor this activity as it's occurring

If the proposal successfully passes out of the committee during next week's hearing, it still requires approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before it becomes law. And it faces significant public opposition in the meantime.

Cagle said San Francisco Supervisors have received "hundreds and hundreds and hundred of messages in just the last few days" from residents who oppose the proposal. And he pointed to a survey [PDF] of 372 likely voters, commissioned by the ACLU, that found 60 percent of San Franciscans oppose letting the police use private cameras to monitor people. 

In a joint letter [PDF], 17 organizations including the ACLU of Northern California, EFF, social justice center GLIDE, and the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, urged the Board of Supervisors to oppose or "significantly amend" the policy, which they say will "allow the SFPD to engage in unprecedented live surveillance" via thousands of private cameras.

It could allow SFPD to share video footage of, say, women visiting medical clinics that provide abortions with out-of-state prosecutors, or undocumented immigrants going to work with federal immigration agents, the organizations argued. We note that San Francisco is a sanctuary city.

"We are deeply concerned that SFPD's proposal, if approved as written, threatens the privacy and safety of people going to work and school, accessing housing and seeking social services that make our city healthy and safe," the letter said.

Opponents argue that the proposal would be used to criminalize Black and Brown people, activists, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and Muslims. And if lawmakers don't toss the surveillance expansion outright, the groups want the supes to at least set limits on what the cops can surveil, how long they can retain the data collected from private cameras, and with whom they can share the video footage.

As it's currently written, the proposal would allow police to spy on First Amendment activities, such as political protests or religious gatherings, and keep all footage on file for as long as officers wanted.

"This concern is far from hypothetical: EFF and the ACLU of Northern California sued the city after SFPD used a business district's camera network to live-monitor protests for eight days following the police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020," EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia wrote in a blog post.

Over the next week, lawmakers are expected to meet police and incorporate some changes into the surveillance proposal.

"Any time a government builds a surveillance system that collects information about people, that system can be vulnerable to misuse by other agency, and this allows the SFPD to share collected footage with very few limitations," Cagle said. "What we are saying is, if we care about reproductive justice, if we care about stopping police violence, if we care about protecting activists, than we should do everything we can to boost protection rather than increasing surveillance." ®

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