San Francisco police can now watch private surveillance cameras in real time

A Nest Cam IQ outdoor security camera is shown to tech reporters after a press conference to showcase a suite of home security devices in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Photo by Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

San Francisco police increased their surveillance powers this week after the city’s board of supervisors voted on Tuesday to grant the police department access to private real-time surveillance cameras.

The vote, which passed 7-4, approved a year-long pilot program that will allow police to monitor private camera footage across the city with the consent of camera owners. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) will not have continuous access to the cameras but may access the network under certain conditions, such as when investigating crimes, including misdemeanors and property crimes. The SFPD will also be able to access footage from private cameras during large-scale public events such as protests, even if there is no suspicion that a crime has taken place.

Civil liberties groups such as the EFF and the ACLU have strongly criticized the new measure, which they say will increase surveillance of already marginalized groups in the city. In a blog post, EFF political analyst Matthew Guariglia wrote that the wide range of crimes that could trigger the camera’s activation would allow for general surveillance at almost any time.

“Make no mistake about it, crimes like vandalism or jaywalking happen on nearly every street in San Francisco on any given day, which means this ordinance essentially gives the SFPD the ability to put the entire city under live surveillance. indefinitely,” Guariglia wrote.

However, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the new legislation as a necessary step to increase public safety in the city, which has struggled with rising crime rates.

“Our residents and small businesses want us to focus on making San Francisco safe for everyone who lives and works in the city,” Breed said in a statement. “This is a sensible policy that balances the need to give our police officers another tool to address important public safety challenges and to hold those who break the law accountable.

Another side effect of the new ordinance is that wealthy individuals are effectively able to increase police surveillance capacity unilaterally and unchecked. As reported in Protocol Highlights, Ripple cryptocurrency co-founder Chris Larsen has spent around $4 million to install over 1,000 security cameras in San Francisco since 2012.

Larsen, a native of San Francisco, said Protocol that technology had “contributed to the disparity and problems we see in San Francisco today,” but said investing in programs like the Private Monitoring Initiative would help improve community safety.

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