Activists Sue San Francisco for Wide-Ranging Surveillance of Black-Led Protests Against Police Violence

In Violation of San Francisco’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance, SFPD Secretly Used Vast Network of Cameras to Spy on People Protesting Police Killing of George Floyd

SAN FRANCISCO – A group of local activists sued the city of San Francisco today over the San Francisco Police Department’s (SFPD) illegal use of a network of more than 400 non-city surveillance cameras to spy on them and thousands of others who protested as part of the Black-led movement against police violence.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU of Northern California represent Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard, and Nestor Reyes, Black and Latinx activists who participated in and organized numerous protests that crisscrossed San Francisco, following the police killing of George Floyd.

During the first week of mass demonstrations in late May and early June, the SFPD, in defiance of a city ordinance, tapped into a sprawling camera network run by a business district to conduct live mass surveillance without first going through a legally required public process and obtaining permission from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“San Francisco police have a long and troubling history of targeting Black organizers going back to the 1960s,” said EFF Staff Attorney Saira Hussain. “This new surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters is exactly the kind of harm that the San Francisco supervisors were trying to prevent when they passed a critical surveillance technology ordinance last year. And still, with all eyes watching, SFPD brazenly decided to break the law.”

“In a democracy, people should be able to freely protest without fearing that police are spying and lying in wait,” said Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “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.”

“Along with thousands of people in San Francisco, I took to the streets to protest police violence and racism and affirm that Black lives matter,” said Hope Williams, the lead plaintiff in this lawsuit and a protest organizer. “It is an affront to our movement for equity and justice that the SFPD responded by secretly spying on us. We have the right to organize, speak out, and march without fear of police surveillance.”

Records obtained and released by EFF in July show SFPD received a real-time remote link to more than 400 surveillance cameras. The vast camera network is operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District (USBID), a non-city entity. 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 lawsuit calls on a court to order San Francisco to enforce the Surveillance Technology Ordinance and bring the SFPD back under the law. San Francisco’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance was enacted in 2019 following a near unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors.

The plaintiffs, all of whom participated in protests against police violence and racism in May and June of 2020, are:

  • Hope Williams, a Black San Francisco activist. Williams organized and participated in several protests against police violence in San Francisco in May and June 2020.
  • Nathan Sheard, a Black San Francisco activist and community organizer at EFF. In his personal capacity, Sheard attended one protest and helped connect protestors with legal support in May and June 2020.
  • Nestor Reyes, a Latinx activist, native San Franciscan, and community healer. Reyes organized and participated in several protests against police violence in San Francisco in May and June 2020.

Link to complaint

Link to video statement of attorneys with client

ACLU case page

EFF case page

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