San Francisco OKs surveillance plan allowing police to access private cameras in real time

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San Francisco on Tuesday approved of a new security policy allowing police to access thousands of private cameras in a live feed without a search warrant.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the legislative body for the city, voted 7-4 to test Mayor London Breed’s surveillance camera proposal, which will take effect in 30 days and sunset in 15 months.

Under the policy, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) can access cameras owned by city residents and businesses who give police the OK to monitor them, potentially opening up thousands of private surveillance cameras to officers.

According to the legislation, police can monitor the cameras in a live feed for any “significant events with public safety concerns” or in the course of a criminal investigation in which camera access is needed.

Previously, police had to request access to camera feeds based on specific incidents and time stamps after a crime occurs or for a related investigation and could only access them in real time in the event of imminent danger.

The new policy raises fears of a potentially Orwellian surveillance state.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital space, called the new policy a “troubling ordinance” that could have a chilling effect on First Amendment and other rights.

“Make no mistake, misdemeanors like vandalism or jaywalking happen on nearly every street of San Francisco on any given day — meaning that this ordinance essentially gives the SFPD the ability to put the entire city under live surveillance indefinitely,” the organization wrote in a press release.

Breed introduced the legislation in May, arguing the city needs “law enforcement to have the tools to take on the very real public safety challenges facing our city.”

“This balanced proposal will help police deal with urgent public safety events, as well as support criminal investigations around issues like violent crime, retail theft, and drug dealing,” she said in a statement at the time.

SFPD Chief William Scott called it “an opportunity to gather independent evidence relevant to criminal investigations.”

The SFPD is required to submit quarterly reports to officials, in which officers will explain who it requested camera surveillance access from and why, as well as what charges the surveillance method may have brought. Access to camera feeds are disconnected 24 hours after SFPD is given access.

Over the summer, a coalition of more than 15 organizations blasted the then-proposed policy, urging Breed and city officials not to adopt it or to at least significantly amend the legislation.

“If the SFPD asked the city to buy thousands of new cameras for live surveillance, residents and
the Board would be rightly alarmed,” the coalition wrote in a letter. “SFPD’s proposal to exploit private surveillance cameras should be met with the same skepticism.”

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