[News] Why Is a Tech Executive Installing Security Cameras Around San Francisco?
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 13 11:27:24 EDT 2020
*(Note Chesa Boudin seems to be supporting this! He could be pressed to
rethink this surveillance scheme)*
Is a Tech Executive Installing Security Cameras Around San Francisco?
By Nellie Bowles - July 12, 2020
[image: A surveillance camera in the Japantown neighborhood of San
A surveillance camera in the Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco.
Credit...Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — It sounds sinister. A soft-spoken cryptocurrency mogul is
paying for a private network of high-definition security cameras around the
city. Zoom in and you can see the finest details: the sticker on a
cellphone, the make of a backpack, the color of someone’s eyes.
But in San Francisco, a city with a decades-long anti-authority streak,
from hippies and pioneering gay rights activists to the techno-utopian
libertarians and ultra-progressives of today, the crypto mogul has found a
surprisingly receptive audience.
Here’s why: While violent crime is not high in the city, property crime is
a constant headache. Anyone who lives here knows you shouldn’t leave
anything — not a pile of change, not a scarf — in a parked car. Tourists
visiting the city’s vistas like Twin Peaks or the famously windy Lombard
Street are easy marks. The city government has struggled to solve the
In the middle of this is Chris Larsen, a 59-year-old tech industry veteran,
paying for hundreds of cameras. He sees it as an alternative system of
urban security, and he hopes it becomes a model for other cities.
This just may be the best moment for him to explain why a rich guy paying
for surveillance cameras all over a city is not a terrifying invasion of
privacy. Around the country, Black Lives Matter movement protests have led
to a reckoning on policing and how it should be done. Many of the activists
leading this movement are fighting to abolish or defund — reduce funding
for — police departments. Last week in New York, for example, the mayor
announced the police budget would be cut by $1 billion
In San Francisco, where many locals push for this kind of police reform,
those same locals are tired of the break-ins. So how do they reconcile
“defund the police” with “stop the smash and grabs”?
Mr. Larsen believes he has the answer: Put security cameras in the hands of
neighborhood groups. Put them everywhere. He’s happy to pay for it.
The local cryptocurrency guy
[image: “They don’t care if they’re being seen,”
Chris Larsen said of smash-and-grab thieves in San Francisco.]
Credit...Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
First, let’s state the obvious reason — besides privacy concerns — that Mr.
Larsen’s plan might be viewed with suspicion: He’s in tech.
Longtime San Francisco residents and the tech workers have not historically
seen eye-to-eye on many things. The natives resent the private tech shuttle
buses and the spiraling cost of living brought on by the new arrivals. They
even resent their housing aesthetic: Glass and metal and pretty Victorian
houses now painted in shades of black and gray.
But here’s where it gets more complicated: Privatization is hardly a new
thing in the city. Around a quarter of San Francisco parents send their
children to private school, a higher percentage than many large cities,
including New York
Private security officers are a common sight. Plenty of people already have
security cameras pointing toward the street. So would a privately owned
camera network be so out of bounds?
And Mr. Larsen is no tech carpetbagger. He grew up in a middle-class family
in the Bay Area. His father worked the night shift as a mechanic at the San
Francisco airport. In 1984, he graduated from San Francisco State
University, and he is now a major benefactor, donating one of the largest
gifts the school has ever received. He also has been a longtime advocate
for privacy, cofounding the coalition Californians for Privacy Now to help
pass a 2004 privacy bill, California S.B.1, commonly known as the
California Financial Information Privacy Act.
In 1997, Mr. Larsen co-founded an online lending company called E-Loan,
which went public two years later, and he stayed on as chief executive
until 2005. In 2012, he co-founded a start-up that would be called Ripple,
which helped people send money online using so-called blockchain technology
and the digital token called XRP. During the peak of the speculator-crazed
crypto boom of 2017, its value spiked
<https://cointelegraph.com/xrp-price-index> wildly. Mr. Larsen became one
of the few crypto entrepreneurs to make and then hang onto that overnight
His apartment on Russian Hill has a trophy view of San Francisco Bay and
the tight curves of Lombard Street. But also: the crews coming in to rob
tourists’ cars, right in the middle of the day. Mr. Larsen watches the
police drive by, and the criminals arriving 15 seconds later, smashing the
vehicles’ windows and stealing luggage.
“They don’t care at all — they don’t care if they’re being seen,” Mr.
Larsen said. “It’s brazen.”
His father-in-law’s car was robbed. Mr. Larsen’s own car windows were
smashed. When a group of men climbed into his garden and one of them cut
the wires on his home security system, while his children were sleeping
inside, Mr. Larsen decided that he had had enough.
When I wrote to Mr. Larsen asking for an interview, he immediately said
yes, and he answered all of my questions. He said he knew that what he was
doing might raise concerns, so he wanted to be open about it.
Here is what he is doing: Writing checks for nearly $4 million to buy
cameras that record high-definition video of the streets and paying to have
them maintained by a company called Applied Video Solutions The rest is up
to locals in neighborhood coalitions like Community Benefit Districts,
nonprofits formed to provide services to the area.
Here is how the project works: Neighbors band together and decide where to
put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion
of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners
want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition. The
cameras are always recording.
The cameras are not hidden. Mr. Larsen believes they can serve as both
deterrent and aid in investigations, but it is difficult to say how
effective they have been in reducing overall crime.
Camera surveillance is happening in a lot of cities, but usually it is
managed by police departments. In London, there are around 420,000
closed-circuit cameras, according to a 2017 report by the Brookings
and the city has begun testing using facial recognition software. In New
York, too, cameras are common. In Newark, anyone with an internet
connection can watch the streets
from the city’s police cameras, which have a Newark police department
placard to warn that the area is under surveillance.
San Francisco is unique in that the cameras are not being installed and
monitored by the police but by private citizens, and it is unique in that
one person is paying for so much of it.
Mr. Larsen started installing them in 2012 with just a few around his
neighborhood. These days, he funds a network of more than 1,000. He funds
the C.B.D.s to control and monitor them. He funds the longstanding
nonprofit SF Safe, which supports neighborhood watch groups and the Police
Some of the city’s densest neighborhoods and commercial corridors — like
Union Square, Japantown, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Tenderloin and Russian Hill
— have signed on, and now the network includes 135 blocks.
“You think they have all these video banks in their police stations? No.
Mostly they don’t have decent internet connections,” Mr. Larsen said. “So
we helped pay for some internet connections.”
>From Japantown’s restaurants and nursing homes to the Union Square shopping
district, business and homeowners have welcomed his cameras. Every
neighborhood has sought to expand their program since installing. As
proponents of Mr. Larsen’s network see things, they get the safety of a
surveillance state without the state.
“If you went to the board of supervisors and asked the members to approve
this, you’d end up having a conversation about government and
surveillance,” said Simon Bertrang, the head of a community benefit
district, a coalition of businesses, residents and property owners in the
A few of the neighborhoods watch the footage live, others don’t. If someone
wants the footage — a police officer or a crime victim or a defense lawyer
— they ask the neighborhood coalition for it.
His ally in all of this is someone very different and a little surprising:
Chesa Boudin, the new, ultraprogressive district attorney of San Francisco.
Mr. Boudin, a fiery lawyer who wants radical policing and sentencing
reform, became San Francisco’s district attorney in January. And he won
despite a ferocious $700,000 opposition campaign
by the city Police Department’s union. Now, the 39-year-old Mr. Boudin, son
of two members of the militant organization Weather Underground, has
elevated the calls to defund police departments.
“In less than 24 hours my office has received over 1,000 emails demanding
that San Francisco defund the police department,” he tweeted on June 5
Mr. Boudin likes Mr. Larsen and vice versa.
The community groups
Credit...Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
In January, Mr. Larsen and Mr. Boudin met in Japantown and walked to its
Community Benefit District office. It was a small office with three desks,
one tiny dog bed, and two large screens with live video of the streets. The
screens are monitored by the two-person benefit district staff. That
equipment is paid for by Mr. Larsen. The rest was paid by the benefit
The myriad C.B.D.s, coalitions of local property owners, had mostly been
around since the mid-2000s, so Mr. Larsen used that infrastructure as the
local organizing unit to take his funding and use his supplier at Applied
Video Solutions to buy and install cameras. They said the footage was only
stored locally within each C.B.D. office and erased after 30 days.
In Japantown, the group mostly uses the cameras to find where a car window
has been shattered or trash has been dumped so they can send the
neighborhood’s private cleanup crew, paid for by local property owners.
Other events they report to the police department. There was the bike
theft, the phone theft, the backpacks and purses. One time a golden
retriever was stolen, and they sent the footage to the San Francisco Police
Department, which used the cameras to track him down.
Dmitri Shimolin, the head of Applied Video Solutions in San Francisco’s
Mission District, was at the computer leading the demonstration. He zoomed
in to show the quality of footage the cameras were getting.
“An arrest was made from some footage, and we called the guy ‘Dimples’
because you could see the dimples on his face,” Mr. Shimolin said.
The image quality from the cameras is much better than typical
home-security cameras like Ring or Nest, and the field of vision is larger.
It is arguably more compelling evidence in court because the video is
monitored by a third-party intermediary who can testify that it is a
continuous feed. It is time stamped. And because the network covers many
blocks, the footage can tell a broader story than a single camera about an
event that might be moving from block to block, in the case of, for
example, a fight.
One side effect of the cameras is that when one C.B.D. installs them, it
seems to push crime just a few blocks away, Mr. Larsen said.
“It’s whack-a-mole,” Mr. Larsen said.
The same day as the Japantown meeting, Mr. Larsen and Mr. Boudin drove to
the C.B.D. headquarters in the Tenderloin, the city’s roughest
neighborhood. They sat at a folding table with about 10 people.
Conspicuously not present: anyone from the Police Department.
Last year, someone was shot dead right in front of the office during a team
meeting. Shootings have more than doubled in the neighborhood, up 130
percent in a year, they said. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the
number of tents for homeless people in the neighborhood had ballooned from
around 120 to around 400, until a lawsuit from local residents
led the city to move the tent-dwellers into safe sleeping sites, the
group’s leader, Mr. Bertrang, said.
“We don’t have a good law enforcement response right now,” Mr. Boudin told
the group. “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
He said the more effective strategy would be to focus on the crime ring
leaders, rather than the people on the sidewalks.
The surveillance footage is completely deleted after 30 days, and Mr.
Boudin wondered if it could be stored longer, giving his office more time
to put a case together.
“Sixty days would be nice,” Mr. Boudin said. “A preliminary hearing has to
happen within 60 days.”
The district attorney knows the alliance is a curious one. If the goal is
to reduce the power of police, private donors like Mr. Larsen can be
extremely helpful. But he worries their help can also involve private
individuals too deeply in crime-fighting, and he is not sure how much to
lean on Mr. Larsen. “What I don’t know is where his work ends, right?” Mr.
Boudin said. “There’s real risks.”
The privacy fears
Credit...Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
The protest movement that is rocking police departments around the country
hinges on videos. The shaking cellphone videos of killings have captured
moments so irrefutable that it has inspired rage from more corners than
just longtime police reform activists. Calls to defund police departments
are getting real traction.
And into this Mr. Larsen presents his solution: Go around the police.
“This has underscored the importance of not just cameras but of
communitywide camera coverage,” Mr. Larsen said. “Body cams show some
pretty core weaknesses because we don’t have universal access to police
body cam footage, and there’s a fundamental conflict of interest if the
video shows something bad for the department.”
The answer is more cameras, he said, and then keep that footage in the
hands of citizens.
“We do not work with Mr. Larsen,” a police department spokesman wrote in an
email. “There is a process for the department to request footage from the
party that manages the cameras. That party has the discretion whether or
not to release footage to S.F.P.D.”
When crime-fighting is put into civilian hands, new and unregulated
behaviors can emerge. San Francisco’s police are controlled by many laws
that do not apply to civilians. One of those laws is that the police in the
city may not use facial-recognition technology.
“San Francisco has passed a very sophisticated surveillance ordinance that
bans facial recognition by the Police Department, but yet you have these
independent agencies within the city limits making their own decisions,”
said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group.
The technology that Mr. Larsen is using is sophisticated — video management
from Motorola Solutions, evidence management from Genetec. Those same
cameras, and the software supporting them, can be used for more than what
they are currently doing.
“This is a system that is designed to scale up to do license plate reading
and facial recognition,” Mr. Maass said. “That is where it’s going.”
Mr. Larsen balked at the idea of his cameras using facial recognition:
“We’re strongly opposed to facial recognition technology,” he said. “Facial
recognition is too powerful given the lack of laws and protections to make
Circumventing the police means a lot of people now can make decisions about
how crime is handled, and watchdogs worry about cameras being used for
spotty or biased monitoring of the community. Putting more power over
security into the hands of local leaders does not mean that power
necessarily will be used wisely.
“There is distrust of law enforcement, and so there are these community
efforts to self-police,” said Daniel Lawrence, principal research associate
at the nonpartisan Urban Institute. But, he added, “there needs to be some
sort of system that ensures the laws of society are applicable to
Mr. Larsen acknowledged the issue.
He argued that trust will come in the form of full city camera coverage, so
police can play a smaller, more subtle role. Individual vigilantism will
not work, he argued, but strong neighborhoods with continuous video feeds
on every corner will.
“That’s the winning formula,” Mr. Larsen said. “Pure coverage.”
Nellie Bowles covers tech and internet culture from San Francisco for The
New York Times. Before joining The Times, she was a correspondent for “VICE
News Tonight.” She has written for California Sunday, Recode, The Guardian,
and the San Francisco Chronicle. @nelliebowles
A version of this article appears in print on July 12, 2020, Section BU,
Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: He’ll Pay for the Cameras.
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