San Francisco cops can use private cameras to live-monitor 'significant events'

All eyes on you, and you, and you

San Francisco police are now set to use non-city-owned video cameras for real-time surveillance under a rule approved by the Board of Supervisors.

The controversial policy [PDF] allows the US West Coast city's cops to use privately owned surveillance cameras and camera networks to conduct investigations as well as to live monitor "significant events with public safety concerns" and investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations.

Police must get permission from the cameras' owners to use the footage, but they don't need to obtain a warrant first.

The rules sunset in 15 months after they go into effect, at which time the legislation comes back to the Board of Supervisor for a review of the situation.

Using private security cameras for police surveillance has been championed by Mayor London Breed ever since last November's wild weekend of orchestrated burglaries and theft in the San Francisco Bay Area. The policy's supporters hope it will help the cops tackle future similar outbreaks of crime, and boost public safety, without treading on people's privacy.

Under the city's existing law, the police can only request historical – non-live – footage from private cameras related to specific times and locations, rather than blanket monitoring. The legislation, approved Tuesday in a 7-4 vote, allows police to request "temporary live monitoring" — essentially 24 hours of access to live camera footage — for three reasons: to respond to life-or-death emergencies, or those involving threats of serious physical injury; during large, "significant events with public safety concerns;" and to conduct a criminal investigation.

It specifically prohibits SFPD from requesting surveillance footage "for purposes of enforcing prohibitions on reproductive care or interstate travel for reproductive care." Additionally, in a nod to concerns about security cameras being used to build criminal cases against people in post-Roe America, it includes this language: 

Except as required by law, SFPD shall not share surveillance footage with any law enforcement agency for purposes of enforcing prohibitions on reproductive care or interstate travel for reproductive care. Unless legally required, SFPD will not share footage with non-California law enforcement agencies.

The legislation also required the police department to provide public quarterly reports about the surveillance efforts. Technically speaking, this week's vote needs a second one to be finalized, but that is expected to pass. Police leaders have asked for time to go over the details of the policy before that final decision.

Privacy and civil rights groups argue the policy is too broad and that the surveillance practices it allows can be used to disproportionately criminalize people of color, activists, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

"It allows live surveillance of protests and really any public activity that is taking place in San Francisco," EFF staff attorney Saira Hussain told The Register. "Protests and dissent have been a long and cherished part of our San Francisco history."

When the program ends in 15 months, "we'll be back at the Board in full force to prevent its reauthorization," she added.

Protests and dissent have been a long and cherished part of our San Francisco history

EFF and the ACLU of Northern California sued the city in 2020 after SFPD used a business district's camera network to live-monitor protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and last month filed an appeal in this court case.

Hussain pointed to this lawsuit, plus alleged police surveillance during San Francisco's Pride parades, as two real-life implications of how the new policy can be used to target under-represented groups and people attending protests. 

"It really is emblematic when you give the police these powers, they end up using it in ways that many San Franciscans would find troubling," she said. "That's why civil rights and civil liberties advocates have been raising the alarm."

EFF was among 17 organizations, including the ACLU, social justice center GLIDE, and the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, that, this summer, sent a joint letter to the Board of Supervisors urging the panel to oppose the policy

"We're very troubled by the outcome of yesterday's Board of Supervisors vote," ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Jennifer Jones told The Register.

"Police should not be given access to the thousands of private cameras in our city to surround communities, protests, or city blocks with live surveillance," she said, echoing a series of tweets the organization posted after Tuesday's vote. ®

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