This month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed Mayor London Breed’s new surveillance plan in a 7-4 vote. The policy, which allows police access to private security cameras in real time and without warrants, will begin a 15 month trial in November. To make use of the policy, police must receive consent from camera owners and they must operate under one of three conditions: they are responding to a life threatening emergency, deciding how to deploy officers to a large event, or conducting a criminal investigation approved by a captain or high ranking officer.
According to the Office of the Mayor’s website, the legislation states that live monitoring ceases 24 hours after the SFPD has been provided access. But, SFPD can later access and review historical footage in criminal investigations.
Initially proposed in May, the legislation sparked backlash and goes against SF majority opinion. It was dropped to pursue a compromise with Supervisor Aaron Peskin, but began to gain momentum in July with Breed’s appointment of the interim District Attorney, Brooke Jenkins. Upon appointment, Jenkins wrote a letter of support to SF’s Board of Supervisors Rules Committee that read, “Drug Dealers are destroying people’s lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. Mass Organized retail theft, like we saw in Union Square last year, or targeted neighborhood efforts like we’ve seen in Chinatown are areas where the proposed policy can help.”
Despite what Jenkins and Breed have claimed, the policy undermines values of protecting privacy from invasive technology and operates as a thinly veiled ploy to over-police and incarcerate marginalized peoples.
Considering that San Francisco was the country’s first city to ban any government agency’s use of facial recognition technology in 2019, Breed’s introduction of this plan contrasts the city’s progressive stance on overarching surveillance technologies. Previously, San Francisco operated from an “outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology.” However, the new policy could violate existing California privacy laws, like the California Recording Law that requires “all parties to the conversation” to give consent prior to recording.
The policy can trickle into neighborhoods where it could catalyze already established biases against people of color. As stated by the Northern California ACLU, “In practice, local police could conceivably turn over stockpiled and time-stamped footage to prosecutors from other states. It’s not hard to guess the potential targets: immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, abortion seekers, Black people, and any other frequent targets of state violence.”
In July, a coalition of 15 Bay Area organizations voiced their concern over how this legislation falsely conflates surveillance with public safety and will criminalize Black and Brown San Franciscans. The coalition’s open letter called out how police will now be able to surveil misdemeanors like fare evasions on BART and Muni, or posting advertisements on city property without authorization. These crimes are not issues of public safety, but could be used as an excuse to monitor San Franciscans as they go about their lives in public spaces.
We know that our current criminal justice system is indivisible from structural racism. In 2015, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported that Black women account for 40% of misdemeanor arrests despite only making up 6% of San Francisco’s population. Another study conducted in 2017, by University of Pennsylvania Law, revealed how San Francisco defendants of color are more likely to have their misdemeanor charges increased compared to white defendants.
In light of this legislation, it is important that San Francisco residents advocate for their right to privacy when the policy’s pilot period concludes after 15 months. Although our current times may normalize invasive practices like facial recognition technology, Ring doorbell cameras, and allowing tracking “cookies,” mass surveillance is not the solution to public safety issues.
Making the city safer for all residents requires that Breed and the Board of Supervisors continue to investigate the root causes of social issues and implement social programs accordingly. The overdose prevention plan released last Wednesday by the Department of Public Health and supported by Breed is a step in the right direction. It will implement ways to reduce deaths from drug use and does not include plans to police drug dealers.
In the upcoming Nov. 8 election, which includes the Board of Supervisors vote, San Francisco voters should evaluate where each current supervisor stands, and consider the delicate balance that the future of privacy hangs in.