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New San Francisco Ordinance Allows Police to Access Private Security Cameras

by Kevin W. Bliss

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 7 to 4 on September 26, 2022, to adopt a proposed ordinance presented by Mayor London Breed to allow unfettered, instant access to private and business-owned surveillance camera footage with no more than the owner’s permission for public safety concerns, event crowd control, or criminal investigations. The pilot program has been approved to run until January 2024.

The San Francisco Police Department (“SFPD”) has recently expressed concerns over staffing shortages and its ability to adequately patrol the city. It reported an expected 800-member personnel shortage by the end of the year, one-third of its required police force. Last December, Breed commented that this shortage “hobbled law enforcement when confronting life-threatening incidents like active shooters, suspected terrorist events, hostage taking, kidnapping, natural disasters, or looting.”

The purpose of requiring a court order to access non-governmental video feeds is to protect civilians’ constitutional privacy rights and control the government’s propensity for abuse. The previous 2019 ordinance governing live access to private and business-owned video surveillance granted warrantless access only under “exigent circumstances.” This meant a court order was required for police to access feeds from existing products such as Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras, except when there is “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”

Breed said the existing ordinance left neighborhoods and retailers vulnerable. She stated that allowing unrestrained access to live video feeds is a force-multiplier needed in criminal investigations, ameliorating current staffing issues. Her new proposal allows for “temporary” live activity monitoring during events with public safety concerns and misdemeanor or felony investigations, as well as historical review of video footage for the purpose of criminal investigations. While she admits “we know that technology can be misused,” Breed insists that the end justifies the means.

Opponents of the ordinance call it an Orwellian tactic hijacking citizens’ personal property for governmental use and setting precedent for even more invasive intelligence gathering. The nonprofit digital civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a troubling ordinance with chilling effects on First Amendment rights. The organization released a statement saying “[m]ake 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 surveillance indefinitely.”

Opponents express concern for the potential abuse of the power. Already, examples exist nationwide of police executing search warrants for personal use, utilizing law enforcement services such as GPS location for tracking spouses and lovers, or conducting criminal background checks on individuals for purposes unrelated to law enforcement.

This invasive practice has already been questioned in a 2020 lawsuit against the SFPD for the unnecessary monitoring through surveillance data (from over 400 cameras) of a Black Lives Matter rally, and again at a Pride parade, violating the earlier ordinance against use without exigent circumstances and demonstrating the department’s propensity for abuse. 

Sources: medium.com, reason.com, techdirt.com

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