No on E: Endangering Accountability and Privacy

by Nathan Sheard

San Francisco voters have a lot to consider before the March 5 election. Voting No on Proposition E should be an easy choice for anyone who is concerned with addressing our city’s challenges, rather than benefiting from them. If passed, Prop. E would significantly weaken measures meant to protect the rights and safety of San Francisco residents and visitors. If Prop. E passes, it would strip accountability for the use of dubious surveillance tools, remove the City’s Police Commission’s authority and lower the bar for when police can engage in high-speed pursuits through our city streets.   

The decision to support or oppose Prop. E comes down to how you answer one straightforward question: “For how long should police be allowed to violate our privacy and safety without accountability and oversight?” As simple as it may seem, it’s an important enough question that tech billionaires are donating more than $1 million—with the support of the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association—to convince us the answer is at least one year.  

When tech billionaires and police associations are side-by-side at the donation plate, it’s wise to investigate the stakes. One million dollars might not be enough to eliminate all the challenges San Francisco’s under-resourced residents face. Still, that money could be used for much more effective purposes than convincing voters that the solutions lie in what’s proposed in the measure. 

In 2019, responding to vocal support from a wide range of community members and organizations, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 to adopt a groundbreaking surveillance transparency and accountability law. This commonsense legislation established a democratic process requiring the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to submit a use policy to the Board for approval before acquiring or using new surveillance technology. Once approved, these policies establish parameters on how the technology can be used and how the rights of anyone impacted will be protected. They also outline the steps that must be taken to ensure any information collected is held securely or deleted. 

Prop. E would recklessly abandon this process. The SFPD would be given free rein to secretly use untested and highly invasive surveillance technologies on San Francisco residents for at least one year—without oversight or safety policies. And after a year, if the SFPD submits a use policy for a surveillance technology and the Board of Supervisors fails to act on it, nothing would stop the police from surveilling residents this way indefinitely. While the possibilities are nearly limitless, this could include equipping closed circuit TV cameras with AI-powered biometric tracking, installing long-range listening devices on city blocks, and, according to the City Attorney, even operating face-scanning drones.   

Civil rights groups, privacy advocates, and community organizations—including the ACLU of Northern California, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Coalition on Homelessness, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), League of Women Voters, National Harm Reduction Coalition, Older Women’s League, San Francisco Rising Action Fund, and San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—have been rallying against the ballot measure. They believe that Prop. E would undermine the privacy and civil rights of our city’s residents, especially those from marginalized communities already disproportionately targeted by police surveillance and discrimination. They also argue that Prop. E is unnecessary and ineffective, as the current ordinance does not prevent the SFPD from doing its job or acquiring the tools it needs. The current law simply assures a democratic process that involves public input and legislative oversight. 

During a November 13, 2023 meeting of the Board’s Rules Committee, a member of the mayor’s staff arguing in support of the measure shared that Prop. E “authorizes the department to have a one-year pilot period to experiment and “to work through new technology to see how they work.” This should alarm us all. We deserve more than to be the canaries in the surveillance coal mine. Police should know if and how these technologies work before deploying them on our streets. The people of San Francisco and our elected officials should have access to the information needed to provide confidence that the technology works as promised, and to know that informed measures have been put in place to protect our civil rights. Our leaders and concerned residents should be able to ask questions about how these technologies will impact communities before the harm is done. “Surveil first and ask questions later” is not an acceptable strategy when human lives are the collateral.  

Poor and unhoused residents of our city are already subject to near-constant surveillance and harassment from police. Trashing necessary oversight measures that keep police from acting without democratic checks and balances will not make us safer. History and reasonable deduction lead us to expect more violations of the rights and dignity of those of us most in need of protection.  

San Franciscans know a scam when we see it. Unchecked surveillance is not the solution to our city’s challenges, and we can’t sit silently while opportunists turn our streets into a surveillance state testing lab. Vote No on Prop. E. And tell your family, your friends and anyone who will listen to turn in their San Francisco primary election ballots with a NO vote on Prop. E.  

Nathan Sheard is managing director of advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties nonprofit based in San Francisco.