Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/The s.f. ExaminerACLU attorney Chris Conley speaks at a City Hall news conference about new surveillance legislation proposed by Supervisor John Avalos.

Tech surveillance devices would require public oversight in SF under proposed legislation

The use of high-tech surveillance tools would need public approval to be adopted by San Francisco agencies under new legislation announced by Supervisor John Avalos and the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday.

National Security Agency-style technology is bleeding into law enforcement agencies nationwide with little oversight, the ACLU said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall. Among their recommendations, Avalos and the ACLU called for more transparency around government surveillance protocols in San Francisco.

“The wide [surveillance] net we cast over society makes many uneasy,” Avalos said. “It makes us wonder if we're being watched. It's chilling.”

The legislation will potentially call for all city surveillance technologies to have an in-depth cost analysis, policy outlines and established accountability mechanisms.

Police body cameras, license plate trackers, and other tech surveillance devices would all be subject to the legislation. These technologies routinely capture data from innocent and criminal San Franciscans alike, ACLU Technology and Civil Liberties Director Nicole Ozer said.

That data is often passed on by local law enforcement to federal agencies, she added, often with no public approval or input.

“Oversight is the exception,” Ozer said, “not the rule.”

Out of more than 90 California communities with over $65 million in surveillance technology, only five had public debates over its use, the ACLU found in a statewide survey.

The same holds true for San Francisco, it said.

The Police Department is not the only city agency to employ surveillance technology. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is drafting a plan to employ behavioral recognition software into Muni station cameras.

Avalos' legislation has not yet been drafted. He plans to approach the City Attorney's Office to do so next week.

The most potentially intrusive of government surveillance technologies are International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers, ACLU attorney Chris Conley said. These devices pose as false cell phone towers, and scoop up emails, text messages, voice calls and other cellular data of any mobile phone in its range.

Federal grant data from the Department of Emergency Management show the Police Department was approved for funding to buy one such cell phone tapping device, called a Stingray.

Police Officer Albie Esparza told The San Francisco Examiner “our chief supports transparency in the department.”

Police would not confirm it purchased or employs Stingray equipment.

“We are not able to discuss this,” Esparza said. “We are not able to confirm or deny the existence or use of the Stingray technology.”

It has yet to be determined if Avalos' legislation would require the Police Department to acknowledge if it collects widespread cellular data of San Franciscans.

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