A broken window. That is all the evidence the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) needed to gain access to 375 privately owned cameras, pointed at anyone crossing Union Square for seven days last summer.
The blanket use of mass surveillance like third-party camera footage has become a common tool for police across the country to track the movements and information of protestors and activists.
This is especially dangerous when it comes to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.
The SFPD implemented mass surveillance tools despite an ordinance San Francisco passed in 2019, which requires the SFPD to obtain approval of any new surveillance methods used in policing by the city’s Board of Supervisors, except where “exigent circumstances” occur.
The department claimed that damage to private property fell under exigent circumstances, making any broken window, any damaged storefront, an excuse for surveillance. This allowed them to bypass the technology approval ordinance and surveil protestors and anyone walking in Union Square, day and night, for a week.
This is not just happening in San Francisco. In municipalities all over the US, location data, facial recognition, and social media databases have been leveraged by the police to track and arrest protestors long after they leave the demonstration.
Just last August, the Santa Cruz City Council passed a Surveillance Technology Ordinance that prohibits the use of predictive policing and facial recognition technology and mandates public discussion before adopting any new technology.
“Understanding how predictive policing and facial recognition can be disproportionately biased against people of color,” said then-mayor Justin Cummings to Reuters in June 2020. “We officially banned the use of these technologies in the city of Santa Cruz.”
These surveillance technologies use policing data, and since policing inevitably targets communities of color, this creates a positive feedback loop that empowers police violence.
While Santa Cruz has acknowledged the problems with police using surveillance technology, only 19 municipalities across the U.S. have passed similar laws.
The Santa Cruz ordinance was passed months after the California National Guard provided military surveillance tools to UCPD during the 2020 graduate student COLA Strike. Vice reported UCPD was able to monitor both the picket line and the social media platforms used to organize strikers and supporters.
One of the many tools of the prison industrial complex, mass surveillance is sharpened and honed throughout history to discourage protests before they happen and handcuff participants after the fact.
Enforcement doesn’t come cheap either — one surveillance project in Detroit costing over $1.04 million in city funds. As calls to defund the institution of policing continue to gain traction across the country, one of the specific areas that this demand can be focused is on mass surveillance. Privacy must be protected, especially when it comes to the privacy of those questioning authority.