Ripple’s chairman funded a 1,000-camera surveillance network. Now SFPD can watch it.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 14: A video surveillance camera hangs from the side of a building on May 14, 2019 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco could be the first city in the United States to ban facial recognition technology by police and city agencies. The San Francisco board of supervisors will vote on the measure today. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.


Steel decided World War II. Chips will decide whatever is next.

“Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” foreshadows the coming battle between nations over semiconductors.

“Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies.

Image: Scribner; Protocol

“World War II was decided by steel and aluminum, and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in the introduction to his latest book. So what’s next? According to Miller, the next era, including the rivalry between the U.S. and China, is all about computing power.

That tech rivalry and the story of how the chip industry got from four to 11.8 billion transistors are all part of Miller’s book, “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” which comes out Oct. 4. “Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies: three from the U.S., one from Japan, and one from the Netherlands.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories