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San Francisco expands public surveillance

Public smackdown over civil liberties

In a controversial decision that pits civil libertarians against urban dwellers fed up with crime, San Francisco officials have agreed to almost double the number of surveillance cameras on city streets.

Following four hours of heated debate, the San Francisco Police Commission voted 5-0 in favor of adding 25 new cameras in eight locations throughout the city's roughly 50 square miles. Currently there are 33 cameras in 14 sites.

Wednesday night's debate, which included about 100 speakers, is playing out in cities across the US, as technological advances make it easier to monitor everyday people coming and going in public. While surveillance is a fact of life in countries such as the UK, it runs counter to the sensibilities across the pond, where a fierce expectation of privacy has been a part of the national psyche for 200 years.

"What's going to stop the government from adding more and more cameras until they're in our homes, they're in our back yards, they're in our basements and they proliferate just as they were in the novel 1984 where tyrannical government reigns supreme?" one San Francisco resident asked the commission.

Plenty of people spoke in favor of the cameras, however. One resident, who lives at an intersection where cameras are planned, said a recent shooting near her home remains unsolved. "If we would have had the camera, at least we would have seen who was running away," she said.

Several civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue there is no evidence that cameras deter crime. They pointed to statistics that showed an increase in illegal incidents at half of the locations where monitoring has been implemented. They also contend that such programs are open to abuse by crooked law enforcement members.

In approving the expansion, commissioners said they wanted police officials to explore ways to turn cameras off during political demonstrations. They also pushed for a policy that would see video destroyed rather than simply stopping the maintenance of it.

Under a city ordinance that approved the cameras, footage may not be maintained for more than 14 days. An internal police policy originally called for video to be stored for 72 hours, but this was changed to seven days. Opponents say the video could be obtained by citizens opposed to US immigration laws and protesters under California's open records act. ®

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