With Our Rights Under Attack, We Can't Let SFPD Exploit Private Surveillance Cameras


On Monday, the Board of Supervisors will review a dangerous SFPD policy proposal that would allow them to conduct live surveillance of people going about their daily lives by co-opting thousands of private cameras owned by residents, businesses, and organizations.

This dramatic expansion of police surveillance, a formidable new threat to people's right to privacy, should alarm all San Franciscans. [...]

As written, SFPD's proposal would allow officers to use private cameras to monitor people going about their daily lives and to request troves of recorded footage, keeping it for years. It does not set any meaningful limits on how SFPD can share this video footage. So, in practice, local police could conceivably turn over stockpiled and time-stamped footage to prosecutors from other states. It's not hard to guess the potential targets: immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, abortion seekers, Black people, and any other frequent targets of state violence.

We must be similarly vigilant about stopping the police from using live camera surveillance to target San Franciscans exercising their constitutional right to protest. SFPD was already caught using a network of over 300 private cameras to spy on thousands of people protesting the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020. We sued on behalf of local activists of color, alleging SFPD violated the city's surveillance law when it used these cameras without public input and approval from the Board of Supervisors. Our case will soon be heard by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

With people once again taking to the streets, we also must ensure that SFPD doesn't use surveillance to intimidate and retaliate against protesters exercising their core First Amendment rights. San Francisco has a century-long history of civil protest that this policy jeopardizes.

48 Hills: This is, of course, part of Breed's new attempt to seem "tough on crime."

She's appointed a new DA, who held a "horrible" first meeting with senior staffers and appeared disjointed and unclear on how the office runs and what her plans are (oh, and the mayor sent along a chaperone). She's calling for more arrests and more people to go to jail, even though the Sheriff's Office can barely handle the number of inmates it current has to supervise.

The whole thing raises a big question, though: What is the problem this policy is supposed to solve?

Other than a few looting incidents at Union Square, San Francisco is not in the middle of civil unrest or riots. There have been, as far as I can remember, very few incidents in the past few years where "significant events" have turned violent.

The cops are already supposed to wear body cameras so the oversight agencies can see how they behave.

You can't use this type of footage to stop (or solve) car break-ins or minor property crimes. Other than essentially spying on San Franciscans on a regular basis, I don't see any law-enforcement need for this.

Supes delay SFPD spy policy after alarming presentation by Chief Scott:

The chief explained how the department wants to use cameras in real time to monitor, for example, not only drug dealing but drug use on the streets. [...]

The policy also allows the police to seek access to cameras for misdemeanors. [...]

Sup. Rafael Mandelman: The notion is you think something bad will happen and it's not super useful to have police on hand. But you want to respond in real time because someone showed up and you know when you see that person show up you know somebody will get shot.

So: There is a possibility of a shooting, and "the ingredients are there," whatever that means, but instead of sending cops over to try to prevent it, the chief wants to watch the video so that if someone does get shot, they can move in quickly.

I'm not an expert, but this sounds like a combination of racial profiling and bad police work to me. On a stunning level. The cops apparently aren't there to prevent crime; they are sitting behind a monitor so they can catch someone after a shooting they predict will happen, happens. And they know that because of ... "the ingredients."

Matt Cagle, staff attorney at the ACLU, put it this way:

Chief Scott gave the game away. SFPD wants to co-opt private cameras, apparently to place certain neighborhoods under near constant, preemptive surveillance. Police commandeering people's cameras to spy on their neighbors doesn't reduce crime but it will fuel inequality and invite racial profiling.

I was worried about this plan before the hearing started, and so were 17 local civil-liberties organizations. The more I heard about it, the worse it sounded.

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5 Responses:

  1. CSL3 says:

    Breed and Jenkins: “Now that Boudin’s gone, we’ll show the public that they can trust the mayor’s office and the SFPD.”

    {stopwatch sets}
    {the above SFPD proposal goes public}
    {stopwatch clicks off}

    Now, that is record time in so saying "Fuck you" to public’s trust. Brava, Breed! 👍🏿 But hey, as she herself recovers from the-COVID-pandemic-she-insisted-was-like-totally-over, at least we don't have to worry about another public health threat, does she?

  2. alexr says:

    Meh. Those incompetents LARPers were offered a hour of face close-ups of the burglars who stole several thousands of value of documented items from my garage and did nothing, because doing nothing furthered their union (SFPOA) agenda to oust the DA because he was into prosecuting bad cops. (Yes, the DA sucked, but that doesn't excuse the SFPD from dereliction of duty.)

    • jwz says:

      I think the intervening 26 years have shown that Brin's thesis, "doxxing everyone all the time is good, actually", turned out to be as ridiculously naive as every other tech-utopian libertarian white guy Wired published.

  3. shotwell says:

    It's not like SFPD is going to do anything with a new way to observe the masses. They'd be 100x more effective if they used their eyeballs and looked out the window of their cruisers as they drive around.

    But no, they are nothing but a bunch of gravy seals.

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