Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.
This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.
“Civil rights are certainly under attack nationally, and it is concerning that San Francisco, which is the city that historically has been a refuge for the oppressed and a celebrated center of activism, would move to this policy forward,” said Jennifer Jones, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.
Jones said the new surveillance authority is particularly troubling given the number of cameras that have been funded by one donor in particular: Larsen. “The fact that there is a very vast private camera surveillance network infrastructure already in place does make the passage of this policy very concerning,” she said.
Larsen has reportedly spent around $4 million since 2012 to buy more than 1,000 security cameras in the city in what he describes as an effort to combat crime. The cameras are clustered in business districts, including Fisherman’s Wharf, Japantown, Mid-Market, the Tenderloin, and Union Square. “I'm from San Francisco, and I believe in this city. In many ways, tech has contributed to the disparity and problems that we see in San Francisco today,” Larsen told Protocol in a statement after the Board of Supervisors’ vote. “As members of the community, I believe it's our job to help solve these problems by reinvesting in the city and making it safe.”
While the cameras are paid for by Larsen, the networks are monitored and run by neighborhood coalitions known as community benefit districts. Those districts, not Larsen, will ultimately have to agree to give the SFPD access to their cameras under the new policy, and some have already said they will. In his statement, Larsen also expressed support for the approach. “The decision reached by the SF Board of Directors strikes a reasonable balance to help with public safety while maintaining the proper controls to protect privacy and civil liberties which will ultimately make San Francisco a safer place for everyone," Larsen said.
The SFPD released its own statement following the decision, writing, “Cameras are necessary tools that can lead to the identification, arrest, and prosecution of individuals engaging in criminal activity in our city. The criminal justice system depends on the participation of victims and witnesses. The video footage they provide will enhance their ability to seek justice.”
The Board of Supervisors’ decision can be traced back to a 2019 ordinance that ironically was meant to curb government adoption of new, potentially dangerous forms of technology. That ordinance, which both the ACLU and EFF supported, requires any government agency looking to deploy new technology to first seek approval from the Board of Supervisors as a way of ensuring some oversight in the process.
That ordinance has already been put to the test. In October 2020, plaintiffs represented by the ACLU and EFF sued, alleging the SFPD sidestepped the approval process when it used a network of 300 security cameras to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters following George Floyd’s murder. A San Francisco Superior Court ultimately sided with the city, however, because it found SFPD had also used the cameras to surveil the Pride Parade in 2019, before the ordinance went into effect. According to that court, the ordinance only required city agencies to seek approval to deploy technology they weren’t already using. The ACLU and EFF called the court’s reading of the ordinance “unsupported,” and are currently appealing that decision.
Now that the city has approved the SFPD’s use of these cameras, Jones argues there’s little stopping police from surveilling marginalized groups. “We’re concerned that this will further criminalize folks we know have historically been the target of government surveillance, whether that’s Black people, activists, LGBTQ people, and Muslims,” Jones said. She noted that because police will be able to use this power to investigate misdemeanors, it could lead to frequent, around-the-clock monitoring of neighborhoods over minor infractions.
The Board of Supervisors’ decision is part of a turnabout in San Francisco, which had in recent years moved to reduce police power and funding. In 2019, San Francisco passed a facial recognition ban for police and government agencies. The following year, in the midst of racial justice protests, Mayor London Breed diverted $120 million in police funding to issues including housing, health care, and education.
But by the end of 2021, Breed was calling for more emergency police funding and arguing that the city needed to “change course on how we handle public safety.” Months later, the city’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, was ousted from office after critics — many of them from the tech industry — launched a campaign accusing him of going too easy on crime.
San Francisco is, of course, not alone in changing course on prior efforts to tamp down on police power. Facial recognition bans all across the country are now being reversed, and just this week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to put cameras inside New York City subway cars. “If you think Big Brother is watching you on the subways,” Hochul said during her announcement, “you are absolutely right.”
Boudin, for one, was also a proponent of Larsen’s camera network and its promise to take the load off of police. In 2020, he met with Larsen and community benefit district leaders to discuss the potential of the cameras and the limits of policing. “We don’t have a good law enforcement response right now,” The New York Times quoted Boudin as saying during those meetings. “It takes 10 cops to do a single drug bust, costs $20,000 or something. And I don’t want my attorneys to be doing this for no benefit on the street.”
Of course, that was before the city was letting the SFPD watch those videos live — instead of only after a crime had occurred.
While privacy advocates oppose the policy, they did prevail in getting the city to agree to an audit at the end of 15 months. At that point, the policy will be up for reauthorization, and Jones promised, “We’ll be back at the board in full force.”
Correction: This story was updated on Sept. 27, 2022, to reflect that a camera network in Lower Polk was not funded by Chris Larsen.