San Francisco Police Can Now Get Live Access to Private Security Cameras

Doorbell camera

Thanks to new legislation, the San Francisco Police Department can now, without a warrant, gain access to live video feeds from privately owned security cameras in the city under certain circumstances.

For the next 15 months, the new city ordinance allows the police department to gain live access to feeds from non-city-owned surveillance cameras without a warrant if it falls under certain conditions. Police can request up to 24 hours of access to these cameras if they are responding to what they determine is a “life-threatening emergency,” if they need to decide how to deploy officers during a large event that has public safety concerns, or if they are conducting a criminal investigation and that is noted in writing by a captain or higher-ranking San Francisco Police Department official.

Finally, police will only be granted access to the camera if these conditions are met and if the business or homeowner who owns it gives permission.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the policy was strongly opposed by a wide subset of community members and organizations, including the Bar Association of San Francisco. These critics were afraid the policy would allow for unchecked, mass surveillance and run roughshod over the privacy rights of locals and visitors.

The police and those in support of the policy said it would not do that, but instead help police do their jobs, especially considering the department is heavily understaffed. Business owners who support the bill say they believe it will help cut down on theft and drug dealing.

The vote for the bill passed seven to three, and one of the supervisors, Hillary Ronen, tried to strip one of the legislation’s provisions that allowed it to be used when deciding how to deploy staff during high-profile events, arguing it could be used against protestors.

“That is not a power that I feel comfortable giving,” Ronen said at the board meeting. “It feels to me like we’re yet again giving away more power for, in this case, the police department to surveil our activities when we’re expressing our opinion against the government. That’s becoming a scarier and scarier thing to do in this country.”

San Francisco Police Department leaders are required to submit quarterly reports of live-monitoring requests to the supervisors and the Police Commission. After 12 months, a more comprehensive surveillance report will be required.

Police gaining unwarranted access to private security cameras isn’t common, but it has happened before. In late 2020, police in Jackson, Mississippi tested a pilot program where they would be able to gain access to private security cameras in response to a reported crime.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.