Jul 20, 2022 - Technology

SF police plan to monitor video ignites controversy

Illustration of a security camera topped with police car lights
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A plan by the San Francisco police to monitor surveillance video captured by businesses and residents is stoking concerns it will erode citizens' privacy and endanger the rights of protesters and members of marginalized groups.

Why it matters: The proposed policy shift highlights the risk that technology installed for one purpose can easily be adapted for others.

Driving the news: The proposal would give the police broad power to use a wide range of cameras they don't own, including a large network of cameras operated by neighborhood business improvement districts as well as those owned by individuals and stores.

What's happening: The San Francisco Police Department has proposed the new policy, which has garnered support from the mayor as well as the city's new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, who replaced Chesa Boudin after his recall last month.

  • An existing San Francisco law requires all city agencies to ask for approval from the supervisors before they can acquire or use any new surveillance technology, except in life-threatening situations.
  • The proposal has been heard by a committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with amendments proposed that would add some limits, including when police can view live feeds, how the data is stored and shared and what consent is required from camera owners.

Police leaders argue the cameras will serve as additional eyes and ears at a time when San Francisco faces a perceived rise in crime as well as complaints that the police are not enforcing laws.

  • The state of crime in the city remains hotly contested, with some citing what seems to be a rise in shoplifting and other offenses. But total crime is down since the pandemic, although homicides have increased, per the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Representatives of San Francisco's police department did not respond to a request for comment.

Yes, but: Civil rights advocates are sounding alarms. "It is really important to us there are meaningful safeguards and restricting limitations," says Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Saira Hussain. "We don’t believe that generally private cameras should be in the hands of law enforcement."

  • Hussain says the public agrees, pointing to a survey that found six in 10 San Francisco voters oppose the SFPD's proposal, including 42 percent who said they strongly oppose the idea.

Between the lines: The SFPD proposal is thin on details, including which cameras it will and won't access as well as the process it will use to gain consent and access the data.

  • Critics want to see all that spelled out clearly. They also, among other things, want real-time access limited to the most extreme circumstances.

Critics are particularly worried that any expansion of the department's surveillance capabilities will disproportionately target people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ people and protesters.

  • "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," the ACLU of Northern California said in a blog post.

Of note: Hussain and other privacy advocates say residents were promised that cameras installed by business improvement districts would not be monitored by police.

Between the lines: Even without the new powers, police in the city have been known to monitor real-time feeds, invoking the "imminent danger" clause allowing for such surveillance.

  • Mother Jones has reported that police used cameras to engage in real-time surveillance of protesters in the summer of 2020, while the San Francisco Examiner said surveillance was also used to monitor the 2019 Pride Parade, Fourth of July festivities and a Super Bowl.
  • "None of this is conjecture," says Angela Chan, policy chief for the San Francisco Public Defender's office. "They have done this before."

The big picture: Police monitoring of private footage has been a national concern for privacy groups.

  • Critics have criticized Amazon's Ring for its courtship of law enforcement as well as what they see as flaws in its process for handing over data to authorities. Just last week, Ring acknowledged in a letter to Congress that it had allowed police access to live footage without device owners' consent in 11 cases last year.
  • The SFPD proposal, as it stands now, doesn't set limits on how long video footage can be stored or on how it is shared with other law enforcement agencies, including those from other states as well as federal immigration authorities. Advocates say that's particularly worrisome at a time when other states are seeking to criminalize abortion and gender-affirming health care.

Be smart: The amount of ambient video recording — including by new tech like autonomous vehicles — is only going to grow in coming years. Without limits, critics worry that virtually everything that takes place in public could be subject to police surveillance.

  • "You should not lose your privacy merely because you venture into public," Hussain said.
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