SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Activists claim in a new lawsuit that the San Francisco Police Department violated a local ordinance by tapping into a network of 400 private surveillance cameras to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters this year.
The police department received real-time access to a camera network operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District, a private business association, during racial justice protests in late May and early June, according to records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“This surveillance invaded protesters’ privacy and chilled them from organizing or participating in future protests,” said attorney Matt Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California in a video statement Wednesday.
Lead plaintiff Hope Williams, a 30-year-old racial justice activist and San Francisco resident, claims the police department’s actions violated the city’s surveillance technology law passed in 2019, which requires the police to seek approval from Board of Supervisors before acquiring or using surveillance technology.
“I am a plaintiff in this lawsuit because I want to defend the rights of protesters and hold the police accountable for breaking the law,” Williams said in a video statement Wednesday.
The police department maintains it used the technology legally because an exception in the law allows it to temporarily use surveillance technology when responding to “exigent circumstances.”
To comply with the “exigent circumstances” provision, the department must stop using the technology within seven days or whenever the extenuating circumstances end, whichever is sooner. It also requires the department to delete any data not relevant to an investigation and to submit a written report to the Board of Supervisors within 60 days.
In an Aug. 5 letter to the board, Police Chief William “Bill” Scott said the department requested footage from the business district’s video cameras to investigate incidents of vandalism, looting and rioting that occurred during protests on May 31.
The department also received access to a live feed for the cameras from May 31 to June 6, allowing it to potentially monitor the area in case illegal activity continued there, according to the letter.
Scott said the department stopped using the technology within seven days and did not retain any irrelevant data or disclose data to third parties as required by the ordinance.
In a follow-up response to the board on Sept. 2, Scott said seven police officers looked at camera footage provided to the department, and one officer accessed the remote link for the live camera feed, but only to test it in case monitoring became necessary.
“SFPD Homeland Security Unit (HSU) requested access to the Union Sq. BID cameras via a remote live access link on May 31, 2020, which was the day after the initial violence began,” Scott wrote. “The remote link was requested by HSU to access only if the arson, violence and looting continued. The criminal activity did not continue in the BID service area, subsequently HSU did not monitor any activity, including first amendment activities, through the remote live access link provided by the BID.”
Scott also revealed the department also requested access to the live feed on July 4.
In their 10-page lawsuit, Williams and two other plaintiffs say the city’s use of surveillance technology on protesters does not qualify for the ordinance’s limited exception for exigent circumstances, which is defined as “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”
“There was no emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that required SFPD’s immediate use” of the camera network, the plaintiffs say in their complaint.
The plaintiffs accuse the city of violating protesters’ First Amendment rights and claims the risk of future access to surveillance technology “makes them afraid to participate in future protests and chills the exercise of their First Amendment rights.”
They seek a court order forbidding the city from acquiring, borrowing or using a private camera network without prior approval by the Board of Supervisors.
Saira Hussain of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California represent the plaintiffs.
The San Francisco Police Department and City Attorney’s Office would not comment on the lawsuit. The City Attorney’s Office referred to the two letters Chief Scott wrote to the Board of Supervisors in August and September.