By Brett Wilkins

July 28, 2020

The San Francisco Police Department used a network of downtown business cameras to conduct mass surveillance of Black Lives Matter and other protesters in late May and early June, a leading digital advocacy group said on Monday.

Electronic Frontier Foundation* reports SFPD received live access to hundreds of cameras operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District, a special taxation zone created by the City and County of San Francisco but run by a private non-profit group.

SFPD also gained access to a “data dump” of camera footage during the ongoing protests against police violence and racism, according to EFF.

The networked cameras utilized by SFPD are made by Avigilon, a Canadian subsidiary of Motorola Solutions based in Vancouver, British Columbia. The are high definition, can zoom in on a targeted person’s face to capture images that can then be analyzed using facial recognition software.

EFF obtained documents showing SFPD has repeatedly requested access to footage related to alleged looting and assault in areas where there have been protests against police violence and racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and other high-profile cases around the nation. According to EFF, “SFPD has gone beyond simply investigating particular incident reports and instead engaged in indiscriminate surveillance of protesters.” 

SFPD requested, and received, 12 hours worth of recordings from every camera in the USBID from 5:00 pm on May 30, 2020 to 5:00 am on May 31, 2020. That means that anyone who either attended protests in the area — or even just passed by — may have been surveilled.

Also on May 31, SFPD’s Homeland Security division requested real-time access to the camera network “to monitor potential violence” and for “situational awareness and enhanced response.”

On July 22, Business Wire reported that Motorola is expanding its video security and analytics business by introducing new technology to support public-private partnership programs, which the company says “allow public safety officials and businesses in the community to collaborate through the sharing of video footage and information to better prevent and respond to incidents.”

“Our PPP solutions are specifically designed to help communities provide real-time information to officers, helping them make better informed decisions, deliver meaningful outcomes and maintain accountability for everyone in the community,” said John Kedzierski, Motorola’s senior vice president Video Security and Analytics.

EFF says such partnerships make it “easier for police to gain access to private cameras and video analytic tools like license plate readers.”

In 2012 the New York Times reported that cryptocurrency trading executive Chris Larsen put up $4 million of his own money to fund a network of high definition security cameras in San Francisco as part of an effort to combat soaring property crime. Critics noted that the money could have been better spent alleviating the root causes of poverty in a city where income inequality is on par with developing nations like Guatemala and Rwanda.

The cameras funded by Larsen are managed in a local control room. However, the footage they record can be shared with individuals and law enforcement agencies, prompting critical claims of insufficient oversight. Still, the cameras now cover a 135-block swathe of San Francisco.

Larsen has described granting live access to such camera networks as “illegal.”

“The police can’t monitor it live,” he said in a recent interview with ABC 7 local news. “That’s actually against the law in San Francisco.”

Last month, San Francisco Bay Area lawmakers demanded an end to government surveillance of peaceful protesters following reports of such monitoring by various devices and methods including Stingrays, which can collect call, text and browsing data of nearby cell phones, facial recognition software and automated license plate readers.

The demand letter, co-authored by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL), was addressed to the directors of the FBI, the National Guard Bureau, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection.

The members of Congress expressed their “deep and profound concerns” about surveillance activity that they said “are significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans.”

Other Bay Area lawmakers who signed the letter included Reps. Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren, Ro Khanna and Jerry McNerney, all Democrats.

*Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA) is a partner of Ethics In Tech.

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