SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Oct. 8, 2020) – On Wednesday, local activists filed suit against the City of San Francisco for illegally spying on them during anti-police protests in late May and early June.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU of Northern California filed the suit on behalf of Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard, and Nestor Reyes who all helped organize and participated in numerous protests in San Francisco in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. According to the suit, the San Francisco Police Department 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 protestors.

“In a democracy, people should be able to freely protest without fearing that police are spying and lying in wait,” ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney Matt Cagle said in a press release. “Illegal, dragnet surveillance of protests is completely at odds with the First Amendment and should never be allowed. That the SFPD flouted the law to spy on activists protesting the abuse and killing of Black people by the police is simply indefensible.”

Williams called secret government spying on protests “an affront to our movement for equity and justice.”

“We have the right to organize, speak out, and march without fear of police surveillance.”

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 SFPD’s use of surveillance technology in defiance of the law teaches an important strategic lesson. Activists can’t rest on a single victory. Passing laws requiring transparency and limiting the actions of government agencies is only the first step. Enforcing those laws requires continued vigilance. Fortunately, the coalition that pushed San Francisco to adopt its “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance” has continued to stay engaged and continued to push for further limits on surveillance. The fact that local activists in the Bay Area continue to work and didn’t let down their guard with one victory prevented the SFPD from getting away with simply ignoring the law.

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.

Mike Maharrey

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