A full 10 years and 1,000 surveillance cameras later after a cryptocurrency mogul started putting security cameras all over town, we’re finally getting a set of rules on how they can and cannot be used.
It sounds pretty Black Mirror to imagine a society wherein a cryptocurrency billionaire puts a network of more than 1,000 surveillance cameras all over town, running them constantly and recording everything people do on the streets. But guess what? You already live in that society if you live in San Francisco, and we first reported on it back in 2019.
No matter who funds it, or their intent, creating a massive camera network that aims to surveil entire neighborhoods will chill free speech and political participation and threaten a vibrant and liberty-minded city. https://t.co/7GPPBxOS0M— EFF (@EFF) July 10, 2020
This arguably creepy-sounding surveillance camera network prefers to be called the SF SafeCity Camera Program, and if you haven’t been following its growth, this 2020 New York Times profile will quickly bring you up to speed. The billionaire funder is Ripple Labs founder Chris Larsen, the cameras are in various (not all) SF neighborhoods like Fisherman's Wharf, Union Square, Russian Hill, and the Tenderloin, and the footage belongs to the neighborhood Community Benefits Districts (CBDs), which they’re generally required to delete within 30 days.
“Mr. Larsen started installing them in 2012 with just a few around his neighborhood,” the Times reported in July 2020. “These days, he funds a network of more than 1,000. He funds the C.B.D.s to control and monitor them. He funds the longstanding nonprofit SF Safe, which supports neighborhood watch groups and the Police Department.”
Tenderloin Community Benefit District Launching New Security Camera Program https://t.co/rVmFp5aLzl pic.twitter.com/ULPf9KiKgQ— Hoodline (@Hoodline) March 26, 2016
Back when Mayor London Breed was on her Tenderloin Emergency Declaration kick, she proposed a ballot measure to give SFPD more access to these cameras. Privacy advocates responded with the predictable and undeterrable Oh, Hell No. A Chronicle op-ed at the time decried the idea, saying, “Without proper regulation, the sweeping surveillance abilities Breed wants the department to have only invite potential abuses of power. For a department that has required federal oversight in the past, Breed is opening a door to a dangerous policing future.”
But there have been negotiations and parameters drawn up. The mayor’s office announced Wednesday morning that she was introducing legislation to regulate how the surveillance video can and cannot be used, particularly with regards to SFPD. The press release on the topic does not mention Chris Larsen or SF SafeCity Camera Program, but its reference to “non-city owned cameras” makes it pretty clear what network we’re talking about here.
“The proposed policy would allow law enforcement temporary access to non-city owned cameras to live monitor activity during exigent circumstances—situations that involve imminent danger of death or imminent danger of serious physical injury—as well as during significant events with public safety concerns, and investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations,” the policy says.
The release adds that “The proposed policy would also authorize law enforcement to gather and review historical video footage for the purposes of conducting a criminal investigation and gather and review historical video footage for the purposes of an internal investigation regarding officer misconduct.”
This modicum of oversight comes in the wake of disturbing allegations that these cameras were accessed by law enforcement and Trump's Department of Homeland Security to target peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters last year. https://t.co/8PzQLTAvO8— Aaron Peskin (@AaronPeskin) January 26, 2021
The measure is a compromise deal with Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has long voiced skepticism over the cameras. So if both the moderates and progressives are in agreement, this should sail through the Board of Supervisors, right? Oh, it probably will not!
Hoodline followed a controversial proposed Castro CBD effort to install these surveillance cameras that raged for more than nine months, and was shot down amidst complaints that "They aren’t providing safety, they’re providing surveillance."
Brees and Peskin’s measure will go through various board committees, and probably eventually will be voted on by the full board. We’ll be watching.
Related: SFPD Already Using Surveillance Video From Self-Driving Cars [SFist]
Image: Japantown CBD