Privacy advocates concerned over San Francisco’s billionaire-funded surveillance camera network

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SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Private surveillance networks, many paid for by one tech billionaire, are popping up across San Francisco. 

The cryptocurrency mogul says his goal is to help police stop the rash of property crimes in the city, but privacy rights advocates worry about potential abuse.

Those behind the Safe City Camera Project say the security camera network has seen some success.

They say one example of a crime caught by the cameras that ended in an arrest was when a tourist from Texas tried to stop an alleged smash and grab robber by jumping on the hood of the getaway vehicle. 

“The person kind of fell off, she could’ve got killed — but they were able to grab that person and it’s a serious crime.”

Chris Larsen is the San Francisco-born tech billionaire who has spent millions of his personal fortune to help police stop the rampant property crime that’s been plaguing the city. He he believes most of the crimes are the work of professional thieves.

“We clearly can see that these are crews,” Larsen said. “We can stop them with the right tools.” 

He’s helped several local neighborhood groups establish networks of cameras that can capture the video evidence needed to make arrests and convictions.

Several of these groups are what’s known as Community Benefit Districts, where local merchants and property owners tax themselves to pay for things like extra sidewalk cleaning or security guards.

Six of them now have camera networks. 

At least 15 neighborhood watch groups have established similar surveillance systems with the help of San Francisco SAFE. 

The video can be collected by police after a crime has been committed and they’ve seen some positive results. 

The network helped identify suspects involved in everything from dog napping to assault.  

While most of these groups operate separately, Larsen says they have similar rules guiding them on the use of the video surveillance network.

“For example obviously — no facial recognition — that’s the law in San Francisco. But also no audio, storing it for only 30 days,”  he said. “It’s not being stored on Google or on Amazon, it’s locally stored and locally controlled.”

He says if police are investigating a crime, they can go to that local community and request local leaders to look up if something happened during a certain time frame.

“It’s a pretty good system, we think more of that is going to happened with the other community benefit districts,” Larsen said. “And then you get a kind of city-wide network without it all being centrally controlled and everyone saying ‘well, big brother is watching.”

But not everyone supports this expanding network of security cameras. 

“I do have concerns about having surveillance systems operated by people who don’t have the proper training to operate what is essentially a law-enforcement network,” said Dave Maass, senior investigator researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Maass says these people managing the surveillance aren’t specialized to handle these type of crimes.

“These people who work in business improvement districts are trained on issues related to capitalism and commercialism and sales and cleaning the sidewalks when they’re feces on them — there are things that they are specialized at, but investigations into violent crimes, and investigation into robberies isn’t necessarily their specialty,” Maass said.

One issue nagging him is that all of these groups are contracting with one company to manage cameras and store the video.  

He’s also worried about the potential abuse he fears these systems are capable of. 

“Currently they just stream video live and they record video, but the systems also have the capability to do all sorts of video analytics,” he said. “You can do license plate readers with it. You can do face recognition. You can track people moving from cameras to cameras. “

He says they aren’t currently doing that, but that the concern is what the network of cameras might be used for in the future.

“We often see technology come in and they say it’s for one purpose, but then it expands to another,” he said.

He’s concerned about the control that comes with a surveillance network like this.

“I also worry about what kind of impact this is going to have on people,” he said. “When you put up a camera surveillance network, it isn’t just about public safety, it is about control.”

He mentions the impact in countries like China.

“It is about controlling people’s behaviors. When you look about what happens in China, it’s not about solving crimes, it’s about a repressing a population and making sure that people fit within the societal norms decided by the government,” Maass said.

He’s also concerned that in the future people will start censoring themselves and that they will be less likely to go places like churches, synagogues, cannabis dispensaries or receive health care because of the surveillance.

Those who support this camera network point out that this is not a situation of big brother tracking private citizens’ every move. 

Karin Flood is with the Union Square’s Business Improvement District, which runs a network of nearly 400 cameras monitoring 30 city blocks. 

“All I can say is don’t break the law, when you come to Union Square behave yourself,” she said.

“We’re not actively monitoring during the day,” she said. “It’s only if you’re engage in criminal activity are we gonna zero in on what you’re doing when we pull the footage.”

Larsen thinks with the help of privacy rights advocates, the Safe City Camera Network can be a model for cities around the world.  

“If you can start showing a system of really good safety and security and public safety, in big cities in particular, and pro-privacy where the privacy rights people relatively, they should never be 100% comfortable, but to get relatively comfortable, that would be pretty cool,” Larsen said.

He says they need to keep working on that

“The truth is cities are doing this all around the world and there are clearly some cities doing this where it’s like the worst case scenario of every horrible thing you can imagine around surveillance and facial recognition,” he said. “That can quickly get out of control. So if can have an example where it’s working and it’s pro privacy, that would be pretty cool.”

He says San Francisco should be a place where that happens.

A place where law abiding citizens can feel safer without feeling scrutinized.

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