Privacy SOS

San Francisco club: police tried to force us to install surveillance cameras to spy on our customers

San Francisco band Luxxury performing live at the Bohemian Carnival event at DNA Lounge on March 17, 2007. Photo credit: JWZ.

According to a San Francisco nightclub, the city’s police department has been manipulating and coercing bar and club owners into installing surveillance cameras and then granting the police open access to the footage. 

After the city government’s failure to pass legislation that would have required bars to install surveillance cameras and metal detectors, the police appear to have taken to making veiled threats to the few bar owners who won’t comply with their spy-on-your-customers-for-us directives.

The website for the DNA Lounge, a club owned by former Netscape programmer and open source hacker Jamie Zawinksi, describes how the police tried to intimidate the establishment into going along with its surveillance plans:

We got a funny phone call today, and by "funny" I mean "not actually even a little funny."

Officer Chan, the permitting officer for SFPD, called to remind us that we're required to have video surveillance that records everything our customers do, and to give that footage to SFPD any time they ask, without a warrant or explanation. "Actually, that's not the case, I'm not required to do that," says Barry. "It's a part of the Good Neighbor Policy," says the cop. "No, actually, it's not. And it's also not a condition of our permits."

"Well! I guess I'll have to speak to the Entertainment Commission about that, then!"

Thirty minutes later, Barry got a call from this guy's boss, admitting that while we're not technically required to, we really, really should "consider" it. After some back and forth, he says, "Should I take from this conversation that you're not willing to consider this?" "We have considered it, which is why we fought to have that condition not put on our permits."

Someone from the Entertainment Commission said, "Yeah, it's really weird that you don't have that condition, because they're putting that on everybody's permits now. Nobody else has fought it."

Which isn't surprising, since apparently everyone who works for SFPD is going around telling everyone that it's required by law when that's not even remotely true. It's just another sneaky, backdoor regulation that ABC and SFPD have been foisting on everyone without any kind of judicial oversight, in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The San Francisco police department is, like a lot of other major urban departments, somewhat obsessed with surveillance. In January 2013, the local media reported that the SFPD was interested in turning city streetlights into monitoring devices.

The city is also installing a ‘pre-crime’ surveillance camera network. The manufacturer says the video analytics system, which has been or will be installed in 12 BART stations and will operate via at least 288 cameras, can "track up to 150 people at a time in real time and will gradually build up a ‘memory’ of suspicious behaviour to work out what is suspicious."

This kind of extreme monitoring of ordinary San Franciscans seems to be at odds with the city’s culture, which has long attracted freedom-seekers and rebels of all stripes.

DNA Lounge put it this way, reflecting on the city proposal to mandate cameras at bars:

I wish all these people would just go away. I'm sure there are some lovely small towns in the Midwest or the South that would appreciate their careful, parental ministrations.

It’s good to see at least one business won’t be intimidated into spying on its customers in the service of the police. Freedom-loving San Franciscans can take heart that when relaxing at this specific club, their funny dance moves and flirting won’t be recorded for the police to view willy-nilly. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.