The Fight Against Surveillance in San Francisco

With budgets that can consume nearly half of a municipality’s funds, police departments across the United States spend millions to watch us and collect our information with increasingly invasive technology.

In many places, if you tweet about a city council vote, drop your kids off at school, visit a doctor, or march for Black lives, you may end up in a government database.

Police surveillance systems extend across the physical and digital worlds. Networks of automated license plate reader map our commute, streetlight microphones record our conversations, biometric systems scan our physical features, and social media trawling software captures our online activity. 

These systems are a significant threat to our civil liberties and civil rights. When the government augments its power with surveillance, the results are more incarceration, more police violence, and ultimately, fewer people willing to speak out.

One of the most pressing civil rights and liberties issues of the 21st century is how to stop oppressive, tech powered surveillance. And in recent years, San Francisco, the nation’s innovation hub, has reckoned with it.  

In 2019, San Francisco passed a groundbreaking anti-surveillance model that banned facial recognition and wrested decision-making power away from exclusive police control. We used that campaign – which built on our previous work in communities across Northern California - to create a model for cities elsewhere.

Since the law passed, the San Francisco Police Department has resisted it. But a growing network of activists, residents, and organizations have fought back.

What follows is a snapshot of that struggle, including victories, setbacks, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Taken together, it shows the value of vigilance, the need for resilience, and the importance of staying organized.

How it began: San Francisco’s landmark surveillance ordinance

The San Francisco Police Department has a decades-long record of surveillance, marked by racism and discrimination.

By 1975, the department had amassed files on more than 100,000 San Franciscans, including civil rights demonstrators, anti-war activists, labor union members, and students. In the 1980s and 1990s, SFPD infiltrated community meetings and illegally hid surveillance records. In the 2000s, it enlisted in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to spy on mosques and Muslims and pulled a Black woman out of her car at gunpoint after a license plate reader misidentified her. In the 2010s, SFPD officers were caught singling out Black people for drug busts, and exchanging violent and racist text messages. Not longer after, they were also caught storing survivors’ DNA from rape kits in a database used to identify possible criminal suspects.

Well versed in the SFPD’s history of abuse, we watched its growing arsenal of surveillance systems with alarm. New computing technology meant that records that once took years to amass could now be gathered with the push of a button.

San Francisco’s laws were not equipped to handle this reality. There was nothing in place to stop the SFPD from unilaterally purchasing the latest surveillance technology and using it in secret without any democratic oversight.

For years, we organized and educated. In 2009, we helped publicize a report that showed that San Francisco’s surveillance cameras didn’t reduce crime. A few years later, we exposed a secret memorandum between the FBI and SFPD that eliminated surveillance protections meant to protect against racial and religious profiling. In the subsequent years, we challenged the reckless use of license plate readers and facial recognition software.

Along the way, we steadily built relationships with racial justice groups, faith groups, homeless advocates, LGBTQ and immigrant’s rights organizations, public agencies like the Public Defender’s Office, and everyday residents who want to protect their homes and their neighbors.

Our years of grassroots advocacy and organizing paid off in 2019, when a diverse alliance, spearheaded by the ACLU, pushed San Francisco to pass the nation’s first-ever ban on municipal facial recognition – a dangerous technology that misidentifies people of color and threatens fundamental privacy rights.

The same law also forced every city department to report and receive approval for the surveillance technology they used, meaning the government could no longer secretly stockpile tech without the public’s consent.

The SFPD Spies on the Black Lives Matter Movement

In the summer 2020, thousands of San Franciscans joined with the rest of the nation to protest the murder of George Floyd and the killings and abuses of countless other Black people by the police. 

In a twisted irony, the SFPD illegally accessed hundreds of private surveillance cameras to place the protests for police accountability under live surveillance all without the democratic approval required by the City’s new law. We learned about the possible violation of the anti-surveillance law two months after the protest, thanks to a public records act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The documents they obtained showed that the SFPD used these cameras without permission from the Board of Supervisors, as the surveillance law requires.   

Thankfully, the City’s facial recognition ban stopped the SFPD from scanning the faces and logging the identities of those who marched, and then using that information to track down organizers, as happened in places like New York City.

But still, surveillance of protected First Amendment activity stifles activism. and is the exact type of use 2019 law was designed to protect against.

In response, we joined forces with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to file a first of its kind lawsuit on behalf of three targeted activists. Our case will soon be heard by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

Mayor Breed Joins with the SFPD

Unfortunately, the SFPD found a powerful ally in Mayor London Breed.

In January of 2022, citing public safety concerns, Mayor Breed proposed a ballot measure that would have gutted the law by carving out massive exceptions that gave virtually unchecked surveillance powers to the police. She warned that if the Board of Supervisors didn’t approve it, she would introduce the same proposal as a ballot measure and put it to the voters.  

Thanks to the work we had done in 2019, we had a network of activists ready to mobilize.

Attorneys on our ACLU of Northern California technology and civil liberties team joined forces with our communications experts and our organizers to make sure the public knew and understood the impacts of Breed’s proposal. We and nearly three dozen coalition partners signed onto a letter to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors opposing the efforts to undermine protections against surveillance.

Our coalition recruited San Francisco residents, and broader public opposition to the plan grew -- scores of people flooded the mayor and supervisors with messages challenging her proposal and demanding that city officials preserve the current surveillance law. We also encouraged city residents to come to the Board of Supervisors meeting to speak out against the expansion, and they did.

Caught off-guard by the groundswell of public opposition, Breed quietly withdrew her proposal two months after she had introduced it.

Police and Private Surveillance Cameras – A Dangerous New Frontier

Come summer, the SFPD was back at it. In June, the department introduced a plan to cross over into a new frontier of surveillance: privately owned surveillance devices.

The policy was a power grab to make the thousands of private cameras across the city available to the SFPD. This included personal doorbell cameras and CCTVs near sensitive locations, such as sites of worship or abortion clinics.

To be clear, the police don’t just want to be able to use them in life-threatening and emergency situations. They want to be able to use them whenever they suspect any kind of criminal activity, even non-violent misdemeanors. This would effectively allow the police to put entire communities, such as San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, under heavy surveillance.

An early version of the policy let the police keep recorded footage for years and share it without out-of-state agencies – which posed a particular threat to immigrants, abortion seekers, and LGBTQ people.

SFPD’s proposal was unprecedented and essentially endorsed the tactic the department used against Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. It was also deeply unpopular. We commissioned a citywide poll that showed 60% of San Franciscans opposed giving SFPD access to private cameras for live surveillance. That same poll also shows that San Franciscans overwhelmingly prefer alternative approaches that do not rely on surveillance or police, such as more resources for drug and mental health programs, more health care providers and social workers, and more streetlights.

Once again, our coalition rallied community partners. Many San Franciscans repeatedly turned out at public meetings to provide public comment, and residents sent more than 800 letters to the Board of Supervisors in opposition. We raised so much noise that the conflict soon garnered national attention.

Sadly, the SFPD got their way. On a 7-4 vote, the Board of Supervisors passed the policy. The department now has an opportunity to blanket entire communities under preemptive surveillance, despite public studies that show these cameras will have little to no public safety benefit.

However, while the community couldn’t stop the new program, they took advantage of the public forums required by the 2019 ordinance to fight for and win significant limits. What started as a permanent program is now a 15-month pilot with an independent auditing requirement. Once the pilot ends, the program will expire unless the Board of Supervisors reauthorizes it.

The Fight to Come

Make no mistake, allowing SFPD to enjoy sweeping access to private surveillance cameras is a civil rights disaster. It will inevitably put more people of color and people in poverty at risk of incarceration or state violence.

Yet, without the City’s surveillance ordinance, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t have known or had the opportunity to fight back. While we lost the last round, we made surveillance an issue that costs substantial political capital, turning what the police thought would be an easy win into an exacting struggle.

This would have never happened without the hard work and unfailing dedication of so many in our own organization and partner groups. And thanks to the work and relationships we’ve built, we’ll be ready to shut this program down once the pilot ends, and take on whatever comes next.