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San Francisco cops a step closer to formalized access to private surveillance camera feeds

San Francisco cops a step closer to formalized access to private surveillance camera feeds

A final vote is still forthcoming, but San Francisco, famous for beckoning people to travel there with flowers in their hair, is formalizing rules allowing police access to the live and historical video feeds from private surveillance cameras.

The city’s police department is waiting for biometric surveillance capabilities.

The city, in California, has long been stereotyped as a liberal bastion approving of anti-corporate behavior and politics.

In reality, San Francisco business was once dominated by national banks and now, tech companies. Both sectors have been tolerant of residents’ weirdness, but not of even perceived widespread lawlessness.

Despite overall crime declining significantly over the last five years – homicides are down, but lock your car and front door – voters tell pollsters that they feel less safe. The large, prolonged but mostly peaceful protests in 2021 over the police murder in the U.S. city of Minneapolis certainly got the attention of property owners, which probably plays into this.

City leaders say everyone has had enough, regardless of statistics and possible causes. At least some privacy and police-reform groups strongly oppose it.

So, by a 7-4 vote, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors want to codify practices that have gone on unofficially since the first business CCTV camera went up.

In 2019, the Electronic Frontier Foundation counted 2,753 public and private cameras in the city, according to State Scoop. And it is not only CCTV cameras being used in the city. Feeds from autonomous vehicles have been viewed.

The police department lists as “upcoming” a Cogent automatic biometric ID system in its inventory of surveillance technology.

Officers either had to get board approval to look at a private feed or make the case that there was imminent danger of death or serious injury. On the other hand, it has never been a crime for someone to volunteer evidence to city law enforcement.

According to the Associated Press, multiple supervisors on the losing end of that ratio were surprised that their peers gave more power to police.

A second vote on the matter is required for implementation, but assuming that approval comes, police would get 15 months to access video surveillance, both live and historical. The department must keep notes and records on what happened upon a viewing.

Officers can watch feeds (of outdoors only) for a criminal investigation, if they feel they can intervene in a life-threatening emergency or if they need to plan officer deployments at large gatherings like protest marches.

According to a post by the mayor’s office, police can access private camera feeds “to respond to the challenges presented by organized criminal activity, homicides, gun violence, officer misconduct, among other crimes.”

In all cases, according to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, “temporary live monitoring will cease, and the connection will be cut off within 24 hours after the non-city entity has provided access” to the police department.

It is unclear when the second vote will be held. The experiment would have to be reviewed and ratified again to make the policy permanent.

Breed has been pushing for greater access to biometrics by local police, filing a ballot measure earlier this year to reduce restrictions over how they use video, including from privately-operated cameras.

The mayor’s office declined Biometric Update’s request for an interview. We were directed to the media relations office, which did not respond to our requests.

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