An organization calling itself Safe Cities Northwest is aiming to create public-private surveillance networks in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. The organization claims that it is building off of a “successful model for public safety” that it built in San Francisco. However, it’s hard to call that model successful when it has been at the center of a civil rights lawsuit against the city of San Francisco, been used to spy on a number of public events, including Black-led protests against police violence and a Pride parade, and is now facing resistance from a neighborhood hoping to prevent the spread of the surveillance program.
In San Francisco, the organization SF Safe connects semi-private Business Improvement Districts (BID) and Community Benefit Districts (CBD) with the police by funding large-scale camera networks that blanket entire neighborhoods. BIDs and CBDS, also known as special assessment districts, are quasi-government agencies that act with state authority to levy taxes in exchange for supplemental city services. While they are run by non-city organizations, they are funded with public money and carry out public services.
These camera networks are managed by staff within the neighborhood and streamed to a local control room, but footage can be shared with other entities, including individuals and law enforcement, with little oversight. At least six special assessment districts in San Francisco have installed these camera networks, the largest of which belongs to the Union Square BID. The camera networks now blanket a handful of neighborhoods and cover 135 blocks, according to a recent New York Times report.
In October 2020, EFF and ACLU of Northern California sued San Francisco after emails between the San Francisco Police Department and the Union Square BID revealed that police were granted live access to over 400 cameras and a dump of hours of footage in order to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. By gaining access, the SFPD violated San Francisco’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance, which prohibits city agencies like the SFPD from acquiring, borrowing, or using surveillance technology without prior approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors.
Subsequent reporting by the SF Examiner revealed that June 2020 had not been the first time the SFPD had gotten approval for live access to the camera networks without permission of the Board of Supervisors, and that prior instances included surveillance of a Super Bowl parade and a Pride parade.
Seeing how police have been known to request live access to the camera networks in order to surveil public events, residents of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, the city’s historically LGBTQ+ area, have contested plans to install its own camera network.
Seattle and Portland have both been home to large-scale protest movements, both historically and within the last year. City residents that have already grappled with government spy planes and the Department of Homeland Security throwing people into unmarked vans could soon also be confronted by a semi-private widespread camera network, unregulated and without input from the community. The introduction of these new public-private camera networks further threatens the political activity of everyone from grassroots activists and organizers to casual canvassers and demonstrators by opening them up to more surveillance and potential retribution.
Make no mistake: businesses, many of which already have security cameras, will join these new camera networks based on the premise they will help fight crime. But once consolidated into a single network, this system of hundreds of cameras will prove too tempting for police to ignore, as occurred in San Francisco. For Portland in particular, which unlike Seattle or San Francisco does not have an ordinance that restricts law enforcement’s use of surveillance technologies, residents would have fewer tools to combat the new threat to First Amendment-protected activities. Seattle residents should pay close attention to ensure their police department seeks city council approval and holds public meetings before gaining access to any BID/CBD camera networks.
EFF is standing by to help residents and organizations on the ground combat the spread of surveillance networks that act like a private entity when they want to avoid regulations, but a public camera network when they want to help police spy on protests.