Video surveillance system on pole in city showing SFPD real-time access to surveillance cameras

SFPD Is Seeking Unfettered Real-Time Access to San Francisco’s Private Surveillance Cameras

The city of San Francisco has taken a “tough on crime” turn in recent months, and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) is now seeking an unprecedented level of access to private surveillance cameras. A new ordinance currently under consideration would give the SFPD real-time access to the video feeds of private businesses and residential cameras, access that could be granted without a warrant and without needing to demonstrate an imminent danger of injury or death.

The move represents a sharp policy turn on surveillance cameras for the city, which was among the first in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition software by police. While that stance does not appear to be up for review (as of now), the level of real-time access city police would have would be a first for any locality in California.

SFPD makes bold real-time access proposal during window of high crime

The SFPD’s real-time access proposal traces back to a public perception of lawlessness in the city that began to grow during the pandemic period, as viral videos of the organized looting of retail stores in broad daylight began to circulate. The sentiment came to a head with the recall of city District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June, with critics arguing that he was too soft on criminal offenders. In a break with the city’s usual progressive politics, mayor London Breed declared in late 2021 that there would be more aggressive policing including “state of emergency” declarations for certain problem areas.

The draft ordinance, which is currently awaiting a vote by the city’s Rules Committee (expected to come very soon), has been characterized as a SFPD “power grab” by critics such as the ACLU and EFF. The new ordinance would modify a portion of the 2019 law that forbade the use of facial recognition technology among its other terms; that aspect would not change, but police would no longer be restricted in pursuing video footage from private business surveillance cameras and even personal tools that face public areas (such as Ring doorbells). This would not only provide for warrantless real-time access, but also access to any historical saved footage on the device. Police can currently only access historical footage from specific times and places that they can demonstrate a valid reason for pursuing.

The ordinance could still be revised, as it must first pass the Rules Committee vote and then move to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a final vote. But as it is presently worded, it grants the SFPD essentially free access to the private surveillance cameras of city residents. While San Francisco residents have called for better policing of the city’s crime issues, the real-time access proposal appears to be deeply unpopular; an early ACLU survey found that 60% of residents are opposed, and the Board of Supervisors says that it has already received hundreds of messages about it.

Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, expands on the risks of the legislation and why it is likely going to be revised before it hits a final vote: “While the ability to monitor live feeds from surveillance cameras is certainly attractive to officials, we must make sure there are limits on how much video the SFPD can obtain, we need to know exactly how long such video evidence can be stored, and how secure the storage of the video will be. The law sounds as if there are little to no limits on how video can be obtained and for what reasons. Also the unrestricted sharing of such video with other agencies can be considered a violation of citizens’ privacy and safety.”

Potential uses of real-time access to surveillance cameras questioned by privacy advocates

Privacy groups in opposition to the measure are questioning how necessary it is for the SFPD to have this sort of access to surveillance cameras, and also what unanticipated uses it might be put to. A joint letter to the Board of Supervisors penned by the ACLU and other organizations raised the possibility of footage from outside prenatal clinics being requested to prosecute out-of-state abortion seekers, being accessed by federal immigration agents to track immigrants, or being used to spy on protests. The latter is far from a theoretical concern, as the SFPD was taken to court for doing this exact thing in 2020 during the George Floyd protests.

The ordinance would also conflict with the privacy policies of some devices; for example, Amazon’s Ring Doorbell allows users to opt out of law enforcement access and company policy is to only bypass this when legally compelled by a warrant (or in rare cases where “imminent danger” involving life and limb can be demonstrated). It is unclear if companies such as Amazon would agree to turning footage over to the SFPD if the requests moved beyond these terms.

While San Francisco has undeniably seen a general rise in crime during the pandemic period, some privacy advocates are quick to point out that it is largely property crime and is largely concentrated in specific areas; an April report from the San Francisco Chronicle notes that if a particular Target store in the center of downtown is removed from the shoplifting records, larceny rates during the pandemic are about on par with those in the years immediately before. This would indicate that real-time access to surveillance cameras across the city is an unnecessary overreach in addressing the actual problem.

Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech, additionally notes that this move would be consistent with a trend toward widespread video surveillance among big cities in the US: “New York City (cameras per square mile) and Los Angeles (cameras per capita) both made it into their respective top ten lists if we exclude all Chinese cities. Although the US doesn’t reach the level of CCTV surveillance as China or India, we still have some of the highest figures worldwide. US cities have the money and infrastructure to ramp up camera surveillance with very few laws or regulations on when or how law enforcement can use it. On top of that, many police departments in the US have access to privately owned ring cameras in their jurisdictions, and Amazon has shared video from users’ cameras with law enforcement without the user’s consent. All of these factors contribute to the growing surveillance state in the US, which threatens freedoms of movement and assembly. This growth is particularly noticeable in our biggest cities, though I expect similar trends to trickle down to smaller cities and towns without intervention.”