Civil rights activists are questioning police use of the Union Square Business Improvement District’s network of surveillance cameras, such as those seen near Macy’s and Crate and Barrel on Stockton Street. Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

SF police under fire for watching protests live on security cameras

Advocates say real-time access to surveillance network violates law

San Francisco police are being accused of violating a city ordinance by watching civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd unfold in real time through a network of high-tech surveillance cameras in Union Square.

Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that police secured live access to hundreds of cameras in the district to monitor protests for potential violence over a week-long period beginning in late May.

For years, police have requested footage from the privately operated cameras to investigate crimes like thefts after the fact.

But advocates say police having live access to the network flouts a local law prohibiting the use of new surveillance technology without prior approval of a usage policy from the Board of Supervisors.

“What we have here is our worst fears confirmed, which is that something that was supposed to be used conservatively is now being used broadly,” said Dave Maass, a researcher with EFF. “This is exactly the sort of thing that the ordinance was trying to curb.”

The news prompted Supervisor Aaron Peskin to issue a letter of inquiry Tuesday to the San Francisco Police Department over the matter. He said police appeared to be in direct violation of the ordinance he authored last year.

“The old adage that says if you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide was dubious before and it’s irrelevant in the current moment when peaceful protesters are being thrown in unmarked vans,” Peskin said.

Both Maass and Peskin worried that the surveillance could have a “chilling effect” on First Amendment activities.

The Union Square Business Improvement District began installing the cameras in 2012. 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.

The Union Square BID is a public-private partnership where property owners in the area pay extra taxes to obtain improved services.

Police first sought live access to the cameras on May 31, the morning after looters started vandalizing businesses in neighborhoods including Union Square, prompting Mayor London Breed to issue a nightly curfew.

A spokesperson for the SFPD did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

In an email obtained by EFF, an officer with the Homeland Security Unit asked the BID for access to the cameras on Market Street “to monitor the potential violence today for situational awareness and enhanced response.”

A director of services with the Union Square BID granted the access for 48 hours.

Then on June 2, another officer with the Homeland Security Unit asked for an extension.

“We greatly appreciate you guys allowing us access for the past 2 days but we are hoping to extend our access through the weekend,” the officer wrote. “We have several planned demos all week and we anticipate several more over the weekend which are the ones we worry will turn violent again.”

Police later confirmed that the extension was granted, according to EFF.

On June 10, an officer wrote to thank the Union Square BID for “assisting us with our request for the use of your cameras during this period of civil unrest and rioting.”

“They were extremely helpful in giving us situational awareness and ensuring public safety during the multiple demos that came through the area,” the officer continued.

In a statement, Union Square BID Executive Director Karin Flood said “We granted the SFPD access to the BID’s records and security camera network system pursuant to our policies” over concerns about potential violence.

“Thankfully, we are not aware of anyone injured during the protests, but our concern was borne out by tens of millions of dollars in damage done to already struggling Union Square businesses,” Flood said. “We hope that those few violent looters who committed senseless acts of vandalism will be brought to justice.”

Larsen, the tech executive who funded the cameras, responded to the EFF revelations on Twitter and noted that the surveillance ordinance has exceptions for when police can use new technology “for states of emergency.”

“Even in these extreme cases, the CBD model allows for transparency and provides equal access to both public and private groups through compliance with public records requests,” Larsen wrote.

The EFF obtained the records through a public records request.

The ordinance does allow police to temporarily use surveillance technology to respond to exigent circumstances, which are defined as “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person that requires the immediate use of surveillance technology or the information it provides.”

But Maass said that should only apply to situations like an active shooter, not to demonstrations or protesting.

“Their only justification for it was we believe there might be violence later,” Maass said. “They knew that there was going to be First Amendment activities and they decided to target those First Amendment activities because they thought there might be some potential for violence or property damage.”

Police Commissioner John Hamasaki also voiced concerns about the live access violating city ordinance as well as SFPD policy on policing First Amendment activities.

“Each time we allow law enforcement to cross the line from legitimate investigation needs to indiscriminate surveillance of political protesters, we take one step closer to becoming a police state,” Hamasaki said.

The department requires officers to have reasonable suspicion that a person or group is engaged in criminal activity that could result in bodily injury or more than $2,500 in property damage before launching a criminal investigation into a demonstration.

“A mere hunch is insufficient,” the policy reads.

The policy also requires prior written authorization from the chief and other police officials.

Update: This story has been corrected to reflect that Larsen contributed $200,000 for the cameras and was not the anonymous Silicon Valley donor.

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