Preserving Community Control of Police Surveillance is Essential to Protect Privacy

January 17, 2022

By Alan Butler, EPIC Executive Director

Later this week a California court will consider the first major test of a local Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) ordinance enacted to limit the use of new surveillance technologies. This case is important not only because it will set the stage for how the San Francisco and other similar CCOPS ordinances are interpreted going forward, but also because it implicates the First Amendment rights of protestors and the impact of broad-scale camera surveillance systems. EPIC has worked for many years to oppose the unchecked expansion of surveillance systems, to fight for the right to privacy—including in public spaces—and to ensure that the rights of protestors and other communities are protected. EPIC supports Black and Brown communities in the fight against surveillance and over-policing.

On Friday, the San Francisco Superior Court will hear arguments in the case, brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and a group of individual protestors against the San Francisco Police Department. The plaintiffs allege that the SFPD engaged in unlawful surveillance over multiple days when it accessed surveillance cameras operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District in real time, an apparent violation of the city ordinance that limits police use of surveillance technologies. The City argues that its live access to local surveillance camera networks should not be subject to the ordinance because the SFPD accessed those networks before the law went into effect.

One of the fundamental principles that underlies EPIC’s work (and the work of many other groups) on surveillance oversight is that individuals should have the power to decide whether surveillance tools are used in their communities and to impose limits on their use. We have fought for years to shed light on the development, procurement, and deployment of such technologies and have worked to ensure that they are subject to independent oversight through hearings, legal challenges, petitions, and other public forums. The CCOPS model, which was developed by ACLU affiliates and other coalition partners in California and implemented through the San Francisco ordinance, is a powerful mechanism to enable public oversight of dangerous surveillance tools. The access, retention, and use policies put in place by the neighborhood business associations operating these networks provide necessary, but not sufficient, protections against abuse. Strict oversight is essential to promote both privacy and community safety, which includes freedom from arbitrary police action and the freedom to assemble.

Ubiquitous cameras and other forms of mass surveillance are dangerous tools that demand close public scrutiny and oversight. There is a long and sordid history in this country of surveillance being used as a tool of Black oppression and directed against important social justice movements. As Professor Simone Browne details in her book Dark Matters, the “surveillance of Blackness” has long been a social and political norm. That context and understanding are essential to inform key decisions about when and how surveillance technologies are used.

EPIC first began tracking the growing prevalence of cameras in our 2002 Observing Surveillance series. We later shined a spotlight on the use of CCTV cameras by law enforcement in 2005 when we cataloged the network of cameras deployed by the Metropolitan Police Department here in Washington, DC. We found that a proposal by the MPD to expand the network and to permit surveillance of daily activities was not justified and that those resources would be better spent on interventions that go to the root causes of crime rather than on expanded surveillance. We highlighted the fact that the initial rules limiting camera access and use adopted by the District provided important protections by limiting use to emergencies and limiting the retention of recordings.

In the years since we first put the spotlight on these issues, EPIC has continued to advocate for restrictions on new surveillance systems and has investigated numerous instances of government surveillance of protestors, including surveillance of groups and individuals protesting police violence and racial injustice in the Summer of 2020. EPIC recently called on the New York Police Department to impose meaningful limits on certain invasive surveillance tools and joined a coalition of groups calling for greater transparency under the City’s Public Oversight of Surveillance Technologies (POST) Act. EPIC has also pioneered litigation based on federal agencies’ obligation to conduct privacy impact assessments to ensure greater public oversight of data collection and surveillance technologies.

EPIC continues to advocate for strong public oversight of CCTV and other surveillance systems, as well as blanket prohibitions on the most pernicious technologies such as real-time facial recognition. We support the San Francisco ordinance and the efforts of individual activists, civil liberties groups such as EFF and ACLU, and other organizers to fight back against government overreach and ensure that these laws are enforced. Testing the limits of privacy statutes and seeking to enforce those limits is a vital service to the public.

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