Civil Liberties Coalition Condemns Illegal Spying in San Francisco

By Michael Maharrey

The Tenth Amendment Center has signed on to a letter with more than a dozen organizations condemning the illegal use of private cameras by the San Francisco Police Department during protests in the wake of George Floyd.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of three San Francisco activists, the SFPD tapped into a private camera network run by a city business district to conduct live mass surveillance in violation of a city ordinance.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance last year. The law bans the use of facial recognition technology in the city and requires any city department to get the Board of Supervisors’ approval before acquiring or using surveillance technology. According to the suit, the SFPD failed to go through the legally required process before commandeering the camera system to surveil protesters.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) obtained records revealing that the San Francisco Police Department received a real-time remote link allowing them to access more than 400 surveillance cameras. The Union Square Business Improvement District (USBID), a non-city entity,  operates the network. According to EFF,  “These networked cameras are high definition, allow remote zoom and focus capabilities, and are linked to a software system that can automatically analyze content, including distinguishing between when a car or a person passes within the frame.”

The coalition letter addressed to every member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “strongly condemns” the SFPD’s “illegal surveillance.”

SFPD’s use of a private network of surveillance cameras to spy on Black-led protests against police violence and racism invaded the privacy of protesters, chills and deters further free speech, and disparately impacts people of color. SFPD has also violated the City’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance and this Board’s authority and control over surveillance decisions in our City.

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The letter calls on the Board of Supervisors to “publicly rebuke this unlawful spying on activity squarely protected by the First Amendment and the California Constitution, and take immediate action to prevent further harm to our community.”

The SFPD’s use of surveillance technology gives us a glimpse into the broader, quickly expanding, national surveillance state.

Impact on Federal Programs

Limiting surveillance at the local level also pushes back against the ever-growing national surveillance state.

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local levels across the U.S. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Source: Tenth Amendment Center

Michael Maharrey [send him email] is the Communications Director for the Tenth Amendment Center. He is from the original home of the Principles of ’98 – Kentucky and currently resides in northern Florida. See his blog archive here and his article archive here. He is the author of the book, Our Last Hope: Rediscovering the Lost Path to Liberty. You can visit his personal website at and like him on Facebook HERE.

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