SFPD Can Now Access Surveillance Cameras Across the City Without a Warrant

San Francisco’s city council approved the new powers, which will allow cops to get real-time access to privately-owned cameras.
Janus Rose
New York, US
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San Francisco Chronicle / Getty Images
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This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

San Francisco’s city government has approved a plan that would give police access to thousands of privately-owned surveillance cameras, giving cops the ability to monitor public and private spaces in real time without a warrant. 

The plan was spearheaded by Mayor London Breed, and has been condemned by privacy and civil rights groups since its announcement. Instead of requesting camera access for specific investigations, the new policy allows individuals and private businesses to voluntarily grant access to camera feeds. In other words, it would potentially allow police to look at real-time surveillance footage in spaces where they might not otherwise have access.

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Surveillance cameras in U.S. cities have historically been placed overwhelmingly in communities of color, and privacy and civil rights groups warn the city’s plan will further exacerbate biased policing of marginalized groups. Privacy advocates have previously counted 2,753 surveillance cameras across San Francisco, which includes both police-controlled and privately owned cameras.

“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,” reads a letter written by a collection of civil liberties groups, including the ACLU of Northern California, Oakland Privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Supporters of the measure argued that the measure is “balanced” because it allows police to monitor cameras only during “significant events” for up to 24 hours, requires cops to obtain permission from the camera’s owners, and is set to expire in 15 months. But a poll from earlier this year shows that 60 percent of eligible voters oppose the plan for expanded police surveillance powers.

“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,” wrote Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Do you have information on who is giving police access to surveillance cameras? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Janus Rose at janus.rose@ vice.com.

In some ways, the new policy resembles the police partnerships that have enabled Amazon to grant police access to Ring doorbell cameras. As Motherboard has reported, Amazon has established agreements with local police departments in hundreds of cities across the country which allow law enforcement to quickly access footage from Ring cameras.

“I know the thought process is, ‘Just trust us, just trust the police department.’ But the reality is people have been violating civil liberties since my ancestors were brought here from an entirely, completely different continent,” said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who voted against the legislation.

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.