Government use of many surveillance technologies, and especially face surveillance, can invade privacy and chill free speech. It also disproportionately harms already marginalized communities: it increases the likelihood that they will be entangled with police, ICE, and other agencies with a history of abuse, bias, and unlawful violence.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will soon have an opportunity to join several Bay Area communities—and cities across the country—in requiring Board control of whether city departments may acquire new surveillance technologies. Most importantly, the proposal would ensure robust community input, and the opportunity to advocate against new spy tech before its adoption.
The proposed ordinance would also prohibit government agencies in San Francisco from using an especially pernicious form of spy tech: face surveillance.
On Monday, the Board’s Rules Committee voted in favor of the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance. The ordinance is expected to come before the full Board of Supervisors on May 14.
Like Oakland’s Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance, and Berkeley’s Surveillance Technology Use and Community Safety Ordinance, the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance would require City Departments to acquire Board approval before using or acquiring spy tech, after notice to the public and an opportunity to be heard. If the Board approved a new surveillance technology, the Board would have to ensure the adequacy of privacy policies to protect the public.
Stop Government Face Surveillance
San Francisco’s ordinance would also ban city government’s use of Face Surveillance technology.
Face recognition technology has been shown to have disproportionately high error rates for women, the elderly, and people of color. Making matters worse, law enforcement agencies often rely on images pulled from mugshot databases. This exacerbates historical biases born of, and contributing to, over-policing in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. If such systems are incorporated into street lights or other forms of surveillance cameras, these communities may be unfairly targeted simply because they appeared in another database or were subject to discriminatory policing in the past.
Stop Secret Spy Tech
In addition to meeting with lawmakers to encourage passage of the ordinance through the committee process, EFF joined a support letter submitted by 25 civil society organizations to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The letter cites numerous examples of troubling uses of surveillance technology.
For example, a San Francisco woman was pulled out of her car at gunpoint because an SFPD Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) misidentified her car as stolen. Yet her car had a different plate number than the stolen car and was a different type (a green Lexus as opposed to a gray GMC truck). This is not an isolated incident. Brian Hofer, the Chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, was recently held at gunpoint after an ALPR system, operated by the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department, mistakenly identified the rental vehicle he was operating as stolen.
The people of San Francisco deserve an open and democratic process.
Law enforcement’s discriminatory and unaccountable use of surveillance technologies can put people’s lives at risk. The people of San Francisco and their elected representatives deserve an open and democratic process that answers critical questions before City Departments acquire or use surveillance technology. Should it be adopted at all? What are the benefits and the costs? If it is adopted, who will be impacted? Will it actually make us safer?
The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance provides an opportunity for the public to insist that these questions are answered before spy tech is acquired or utilized. Tell the Board of Supervisors to stop secret surveillance.