San Francisco cops want real-time access to private security cameras for surveillance

San Francisco lawmakers are mulling a proposed law that would allow police to use private security cameras – think: those in residential doorbells, medical clinics, and retail shops – in real time for surveillance purposes.

Matt Cagle, an attorney for the ACLU, called the proposal a “power grab” by the SF cops. “It is rare for a police agency to seek to tap into privately owned cameras — I haven’t seen that in California before,” he told The Register. “This is the police seeking permission to proactively and affirmatively go out to private camera owners and say hey, can we live-stream your cameras? This is unprecedented in the city’s history.”

The proposal expands San Francisco’s 2019 surveillance ordinance, which, among other things, requires the police to seek authorization from the public and elected officials before acquiring and deploying surveillance systems. So if it weren’t for this law, the cops could monitor citizens without the public even knowing.

The 2019 law also limited the cops’ access to and usage of real-time video footage from things like Internet-of-Things cameras and security CCTV, and the police department and mayor say this hamstrings their ability to fight crime.

The new proposal – championed by Mayor London Breed after November’s wild weekend of orchestrated burglaries and theft in the San Francisco Bay Area – would authorize the police department to use non-city-owned security cameras and camera networks to live monitor “significant events with public safety concerns” and ongoing felony or misdemeanor violations.

Currently, the police can only request historical footage from private cameras related to specific times and locations, rather than blanket monitoring. Mayor Breed also complained the police can only use real-time feeds in emergencies involving “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”

If approved, the draft ordinance would also allow SFPD to collect historical video footage to help conduct criminal investigations and those related to officer misconduct. Obtaining video footage from private security cameras has real public-safety benefits and would help officers arrest drug dealers and looters in real time, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told lawmakers. “What we’d like to do is be able to, in the appropriate circumstances, live monitor this activity as it’s occurring, so we can have a better chance of apprehending those committing those acts,” he said.