Civil Liberties

San Francisco's Accidental Surveillance State and the Future of Privacy

Good intentions, private fears, and innovative entrepreneurs vying for government contracts are killing privacy in public places.



San Francisco's government does not own an all-seeing network of surveillance cameras that watch people as they go about their daily business. However, that doesn't mean that city residents go unobserved. As it turns out, if officialdom wants to find out what people have been up to, it has access to thousands upon thousands of surveillance cameras that record exactly that. In many cases, private residents and businesses installed these cameras themselves and offered access to law enforcement. It's a peek into the complicated world of the modern surveillance state, which is largely driven by good intentions, private fears, and innovative entrepreneurs vying for government contracts.

A map and dataset of 2,753 cameras owned by private and public operators in San Francisco was published last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). By no means is this a full list. "The District Attorney refused to reveal the locations of an additional 510 cameras," notes EFF. Unknown others are accessible by police, but not formally included in the tally.

A small number of the devices are official government surveillance cameras monitoring public places, and a few are city red-light cameras repurposed for similar uses.

Two hundred and forty-nine of the cameras are maintained by the Union Square Business Improvement District (USBID), a quasi-public entity funded by special tax assessments. EFF found 249 USBID cameras on the list, while the organization's Security Camera Project speaks of more than 350 cameras.

But the vast majority—2,406 never-blinking lenses—are private, or nominally private, cameras installed by private businesses, individuals, and associations. They've been installed to deter crime and to help police catch criminals after the fact.

The DA's office built its list of available surveillance cameras by the simple expedient of asking people to volunteer the details of their existence. "The San Francisco District Attorney's Office invites you to register your security camera below," reads an online form. "The goal of the program is to deter crime and promote public safety through collaboration between the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and the communities we serve."

And who wouldn't be tempted to install a camera and offer to share footage with the police in a city that had "the highest per-capita rate of property crimes among the 20 most populous U.S. cities in 2017" and rising, according to the San Francisco Chronicle? In particular, the city's thieves have come to specialize in car break-ins, with nearly 30,000 such robberies, resulting in only 790 arrests, in 2017 alone.

Whether you're a resident trying to make a life in the city, or a business owner hoping that customers will keep coming to spend money, installing cameras and working with the cops might sound like good sense.

Not only is San Francisco's growing, cobbled-together surveillance network understandable, it's very low-key compared to London, in the UK, where an estimated 500,000 cameras monitor city residents and visitors. Across Britain, roughly 5.9 million cameras, also operated by a collection of state and private entities, keep an eye on the public, searching for malefactors.

"In the aftermath of the London riots in August 2011 police scoured through more than 200,000 hours of CCTV to identify suspects," reported Wired UK. "Around 5,000 offenders were found by trawling through the footage."

That's a lot of time and energy required to review footage. But technology, including facial recognition software to automatically match faces to identities, promises to ease the task of using cameras to identify people.

"With smart cities there will be integrated surveillance, integrated to other networks, to other databases, other capabilities," warns Tony Porter, the British government's own surveillance watchdog. He adds that "what we understand as a free society is eroded" by implementing advanced surveillance networks without consideration for privacy.

The UK's present is very likely our own future.

Promoted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including through the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo system collection of mugshots, facial recognition software is coming to U.S. surveillance networks, too, with the potential for mistaken identities and all. One 2017 test of the technology, in Wales, suffered a 92 percent false positive rate.

"Facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens—and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether," warned Brian Brackeen, then-CEO of facial recognition firm Kairos, before being forced from his job in a move that he claims resulted from his skepticism toward law enforcement.

San Francisco officials are considering an ordinance that would require prior approval before police add such technology to the city's surveillance network. But there's nothing stopping private companies and independent organizations from creating high-tech camera networks that are then offered to law enforcement as plug-and-play surveillance systems.

We've already seen state-issued driver's licenses tied together as national ID cards/domestic passports, courtesy of the State-to-State service run by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. It's not technically a federal database—it just works like one.

Then there's Vigilant Solutions' License Plate Recognition platform, a service offered to police departments which automatically identifies drivers by a quick scan of the tags on their vehicles. In fact, the same company offers another service that "enables law enforcement to monitor existing IP video surveillance cameras for facial cataloging [and] also offers near-real-time monitoring of watchlists via an integration with Vigilant's FaceSearch FaceSearch facial recognition solution."

Who needs sinister secret policemen when the surveillance state is only a low-bid contract away?