San Francisco police have repeatedly gained access to a privately funded network of security cameras in Union Square to conduct live surveillance on the public during events like the Pride Parade, newly obtained emails show.
The San Francisco Police Department has secured remote access to the camera network on four occasions since 2019, at times arguing that the real-time access was needed to ensure safety, according to the emails obtained by the San Francisco Examiner this week through a public records request.
The emails reveal an appetite for live government surveillance by the SFPD that concerns privacy advocates, who say police are violating a city ordinance banning the acquisition of new surveillance technologies without prior approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Police not only secured live access to the camera network when George Floyd protests turned destructive in late May, as privacy advocates previously revealed, but for the Fourth of July, Super Bowl and 2019 Pride Parade, according to the emails.
The SFPD Homeland Security Unit sought and received permission for the live access on each occasion from the Union Square Business Improvement District, a public-private partnership that controls the camera network.
However, it was not immediately clear from the emails whether police actually accessed the real-time footage. A police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
At least in the case of civil unrest over Floyd’s killing, police have said officers did not view the live feed because the looting and vandalism ended.
Regardless, one privacy advocate called the trend toward police embracing live surveillance “incredibly concerning.”
“The camera network was never intended to be something that law enforcement gained control of and is able to remotely access,” said Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Union Square BID began installing the cameras in 2012 to help solve crimes like theft in the shopping district. Police are usually able to access the footage by requesting it after the fact for a particular incident, not by watching it live.
The network has since grown to hundreds of cameras with funding from various sources including more than $2 million from an anonymous Silicon Valley donor and $200,000 from tech executive Chris Larsen of the company Ripple.
Hussain argued that the live police access could have a chilling effect on First Amendment activities and also amount to a warrantless search and seizure if combined with other technologies like license plate readers and used to identify protesters.
“It makes it so that people are going to be more afraid to participate in protests like these,” Hussain said.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said he would call for a hearing to determine whether the Homeland Security Unit is “complying with our policies and procedures regarding surveillance and First Amendment activity.”
“It is alarming to find out, yet again, that the police are using electronic surveillance against San Franciscans without oversight and accountability,” Hamasaki said.
The department has argued that it can access the live network under the exigent circumstances exception to the ordinance at issue.
The exception allows for the temporary usage of a surveillance technology when immediately required by “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”
In an Aug. 5 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Police Chief Bill Scott said the exigency during Floyd protests was “looting, vandalism and rioting.”
The civil unrest “resulted in 33 arrests relating to looting and injury of one officer and numerous structure fires putting protesters and first responders in peril,” Scott wrote.
But Hussain argued that “looting, vandalism and rioting” does not amount to an exigent circumstance, or “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”
Scott also emphasized that police did not access the live feed at the time.
“SFPD had the potential to access BID’s security system had the looting, vandalism and rioting continued through June 6, 2020,” Scott said. “The link that SFPD did not need to monitor was deactivated.”
But Hussain cast doubt on police not having viewed the live feed during Floyd protests.
In one email, an officer thanked the Union Square BID for the access and said the cameras were “extremely helpful in giving us situational awareness and ensuring public safety during the multiple demos that came through the area.”
“Either there was a misrepresentation to the Board of Supervisors, or there was a misrepresentation to the Union Square BID,” Hussain said. “I don’t know what the real story is and whether the SFPD has actually accessed it or not.”
Hussain accused police of violating the ordinance and recommended the department follow the established process for the Board of Supervisors to approve a policy instead of trying to find “loopholes.”
“What they are trying to do is basically avoid going to the Board of Supervisors,” Hussain said.
Police also cited the exigent circumstance exception while obtaining permission from the Union Square BID for live surveillance during the 2019 Pride Parade.
“To comply with new legislation that has recently passed I want to make it clear that we have no intention of utilizing this system unless there is a major catastrophic event or other exigent circumstances,” an officer wrote.
As for the Super Bowl, police were set up to live monitor Market Street through Union Square BID cameras had the 49ers won and held a victory parade.
A captain with the Homeland Security Unit had argued that police needed the live access for the parade “due to heightened security concerns for this high-profile event.”
Police did not explain in the emails why the Homeland Security Unit needed live access for July 4.
In an email to the Examiner, Union Square BID Director Karin Flood said she is aware of police accessing the live feed “under special circumstances for special events when SFPD reaches out because they perceived a real threat to public safety.”
She said the district’s board will continue to consider SFPD requests for live access in accordance with its policy and threats to public safety.
“I believe that public safety is extremely important and should be the most important issue to consider,” Flood said. “When someone is in a public space in this day and age there should not necessarily be an expectation of privacy. Most everyone has a cell phone and can film any action taking place in public any time. If individuals are law abiding and peacefully protesting there should not be concerns.”
Larsen, who helped fund the cameras, said in a statement to the Examiner that community benefit districts like the Union Square BID and their communities have “full control over the camera networks, their guidelines and how they decide to work with police.”
“As a citizen, I do not have a role in the decision making process,” said Larsen, who was recently the subject of a story about his camera initiative in the New York Times.
“I believe that this model of community-driven security strikes the right balance between safety and privacy,” Larsen said. “These situations raise important and necessary questions, and it’s imperative for the community, and for citizens, to push for more clearly defined guidelines. Everyone should have a seat at the table including community members, city officials, privacy advocates and police.”
Update: This story has been corrected to reflect that Larsen contributed $200,000 for the cameras and was not the anonymous Silicon Valley donor.