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News + PoliticsPoliceSF cops want expanded rights to spy on all of us—for no...

SF cops want expanded rights to spy on all of us—for no good reason

Proposal would give SFPD access to a huge network of private cameras, without any meaningful limits on how the data can be used or shared

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It’s 2023, and dozens of states have criminalized abortion. Some have passed laws making it a crime to leave the state for an abortion somewhere else.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clear that California will be a safe haven, and women from all over are arriving in San Francisco to go to clinics.

There are private cameras all over; do we want the cops to have access to them? Wikimedia image by Xavier Snelgrove.

But there’s a loophole in that safe haven: The San Francisco Police Department has developed a network of surveillance cameras that can capture people going to protests, marches, events—and even medical clinics. And while San Francisco officials say they will never prosecute a woman coming from out of state for an abortion, there’s nothing in city law that prevents the SF cops from sharing that video with, say, law enforcement in Texas or Alabama.

San Francisco is a sanctuary city for immigrants, but that same video could be shared with ICE officers who are looking to find and deport refugees.

Those, civil-liberties advocates say, are not impossible scenarios: If the San Francisco supes approve a new plan proposed by Mayor London Breed, the SFPD will have broad access to private cameras all over the city, from Ring doorbells to store security footage, with few limits on when and how much of that video can be viewed and when it can be shared with other law-enforcement organizations.

As the ACLU of Northern California notes:

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.

The measure comes before the Rules Committee Monday/11.

Here’s the actual language:

The Police Department seeks Board of Supervisors authorization under Section 19B.2(a) 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.

What’s a “significant event?” Civil-liberties advocates say that could include the Pride Parade, street markets, protests, and other civic events that draw a crowd.

And anyone who happens to be in the vicinity could be caught on camera, even if they weren’t part of the “event.”

In a blog post, ACLU attorneys Jennifer Jones and Matt Cagle note: “This dramatic expansion of police surveillance, a formidable new threat to people’s right to privacy, should alarm all San Franciscans.”

A letter to the supes signed by 17 organizations, including the ACLU, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the Council and American Islamic Relations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and United to Save the Mission, notes:

If the SFPD asked the city to buy thousands of new cameras for live surveillance, residents and the Board would be rightly alarmed. SFPD’s proposal to exploit private surveillance cameras should be met with the same skepticism. It massively expands police surveillance, but instead of using city owned cameras, the SFPD can quickly appropriate thousands of private feeds focused on homes, medical clinics, non-profit groups, and even places of worship. The SFPD could also access the hundreds of networked cameras that are part of Business Improvement Districts across the city.

More:

The proposal dramatically lowers the standard needed for live surveillance by permitting SFPD to tap into private cameras in response to any violation of criminal law, including misdemeanors. This would encourage SFPD to cast an extremely large surveillance net to monitor activities completely unrelated to public safety. For example, under the proposal SFPD could conduct sweeping surveillance for non-dangerous unlawful activities like railroad fare evasions, posting an advertisement on city or county property without authorization, or disturbing a religious service with “rude or indecent behavior,” all of which are misdemeanors under California law. This broad authority invites the constant activation of live camera surveillance that will not only further criminalize Black and Brown people, activists, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and other communities frequently targeted by the police and government, but will also expose thousands of San Franciscans to live camera surveillance as they commute to work and school, seek social services, and attend houses of worship.

It’s not entirely clear how the cops would actually access this data, and how they would get permission from private individuals, businesses, and groups. Would the cops start knocking on doors, in uniform, with badges, demanding access to someone’s home-security system or a corner store’s video feed? Would those people have the ability to refuse without any consequences?

How many store owners would want to deny the cops access to their security feeds when they depend on the same cops to protect them?

The measure would allow the cops access to the hundreds of cameras installed by Business Improvement Districts—although those BIDs were set up without any discussion of the possible use of those cameras for police spying, the supporters said not to worry: The cops would never use them. That apparently has changed.

Again, from the opposition letter:

The proposal does not define any process by which an officer will contact the camera owner, request access, provide the justification, or obtain meaningful consent on a case-by-case basis. Without any such process, the policy will incentivize arbitrary and potentially coercive requests, placing undue pressure on camera owners and leading to public confusion. Requiring the SFPD to clearly and consistently explain its requests will also avoid placing additional pressure on a camera owner, especially a homeowner with a doorbell camera, to consent.

And what happens once the cops have the video? Again, the language of the proposal doesn’t address that. But it’s worrisome:

The SFPD’s proposal encourages entanglement with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in other states by allowing the SFPD to share footage broadly. The proposal allows SFPD to share video footage with essentially any law enforcement agency or prosecutor, a particularly concerning prospect in a post-Roe landscape. The proposal would also allow SFPD to share footage with the federal government agencies seeking to surveil protesters or people seeking refuge in the city.

A person in San Francisco should not have to worry that SFPD will disclose video footage of them exercising fundamental rights in the city – whether they visit a medical clinic, a shelter, or a place of worship – to out-of-state or federal agencies for potential misuse. The SFPD’s proposal presents a threat to people seeking refuge in the city. The Board must amend the proposal to allow the SFPD to strictly limit the sharing of camera footage with out-of-state and federal agencies.

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.

The hearing starts at 10am, and this is the first item.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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