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San Francisco police can now watch private surveillance cameras in real time

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The city’s board of supervisors voted to approve the controversial measure, which was opposed by the EFF and the ACLU

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A Nest Cam IQ outdoor security camera is demonstrated for tech journalists after a news conference was held to introduce a suite of home security devices in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, September 20th, 2017.

Photo By Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Police in San Francisco got a boost to their surveillance powers this week after the city’s board of supervisors voted on Tuesday to grant the police department access to private surveillance cameras in real time.

The vote, which passed 7–4, approved a one-year pilot program that will allow police to monitor footage from private cameras across the city with the camera owners’ consent. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) will not have continuous access to the cameras but will be able to tap into the network under certain conditions, such as during the investigation of crimes including misdemeanors and property crimes. The SFPD will also be able to access private camera footage during large-scale public events such as protests, even if there is no suspicion that a crime has taken place.

“This ordinance essentially gives the SFPD the ability to put the entire city under live surveillance indefinitely”

Civil liberties groups such as the EFF and ACLU were strongly critical of the new measure, which they argue will increase the surveillance of already marginalized groups within the city. In a blog post, EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia wrote that the wide range of crimes that could trigger camera activation would allow blanket surveillance at almost any time.

“Make no mistake, misdemeanors like vandalism or jaywalking happen on nearly every street of San Francisco on any given day—meaning that this ordinance essentially gives the SFPD the ability to put the entire city under live surveillance indefinitely,” Guariglia wrote.

However, San Francisco Mayor London Breed heralded the new legislation as a necessary measure for increasing public safety in the city, which has struggled with rising crime rates.

“Our residents and small businesses want us focused on keeping San Francisco safe for everyone who lives and works in the City,” Breed said in a statement. “This is a sensible policy that balances the need to give our police officers another tool to address significant public safety challenges and to hold those who break the law accountable.”

One other side effect of the new ordinance is that wealthy private individuals are effectively able to increase police surveillance capacity unilaterally and without oversight. As reporting in Protocol highlights, Ripple cryptocurrency co-founder Chris Larsen has spent around $4 million on installing more than 1,000 security cameras in San Francisco since 2012.

Larsen, a San Francisco native, told Protocol that tech had “contributed to the disparity and problems that we see in San Francisco today” but said that investing in schemes like the private surveillance initiative would help to improve community safety.

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