- Jun 14, 2005
Surveillance shift: San Francisco pilots program allowing police to live monitor private security camerasThe trial would give law enforcement access to live footage by consenting residents, a departure from the city’s previous stance
Last week San Francisco city leaders approved a 15-month pilot allowing police to monitor live footage from surveillance cameras owned by consenting businesses and civilians without a warrant.
The 7-4 decision by the San Francisco board of supervisors was a major loss for a broad coalition of civil liberties groups that had argued the move would give police unprecedented surveillance powers. It also seemingly marked a departure from the progressive stance on surveillance the city’s leadership had previously maintained.
In May 2019, the board had made history by making the city the first to ban the use of facial recognition by any local government agency. At the time, supervisor Aaron Peskin said, the city had an “an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology”.
But more than three years, a pandemic and many protests against police injustice later, some members of the board now say they need to balance concerns for privacy with the need to allow law enforcement officials to “utilize certain technologies to make San Francisco safer”.
Privacy advocacy groups say the shift is part of a larger phenomenon in cities across the US, where fears of both perceived and real increases in crime have prompted police and elected officials to expand the use of surveillance technology, even if there isn’t always clear evidence those technologies are effective at deterring or solving crimes.
In Detroit, the city council is in the midst of a months-long back and forth on whether to expand its contract with gunshot detection company ShotSpotter. And the city of New Orleans this summer rolled back parts of its own pioneering facial recognition ban, allowing police to request the use of the controversial technology.
“People are being told there’s a rise in crime and maybe they’re experiencing some themselves and they want to see something being done about it,” Dave Maass, the director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization, said. “And for elected officials, throwing money at surveillance technology is an easy political thing to do.”
It’s a continuation of tech solutionism, Maass argued: “Vendors come in promising the world with these technologies without talking about the risks or threats and policymakers just swallow it without questioning it.”