The fallacy behind private surveillance cameras in San Francisco

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
August 9, 2020

By Jennifer King and

Jennifer King is director of Consumer Privacy at the Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School,

Jael Makagon, Special to CalMatters

Jael Makagon is a privacy attorney in San Francisco,


Recently The New York Times published an article about a San Francisco tech executive named Chris Larsen and his efforts to fund a private network of surveillance cameras around the city. 

Since 2012 Larsen has spent nearly $4 million of his own money installing more than 1,000 cameras blanketing 135 city blocks. Larsen’s partners in this effort are the city’s Community Benefit Districts with whom he works to install cameras on private property and control access to footage. 

Why fund this multimillion-dollar network of surveillance cameras capable of picking out the dimples on a person’s face and tracking individuals over several blocks? Larsen claims his motivation is his frustration with San Francisco’s plague of property crime, specifically auto break-ins. 

According to Larsen, the solution is “pure coverage”: specifically “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.”

Multiple research studies suggest that “pure coverage” of surveillance cameras does not end crime. Ironically, property crimes, specifically auto theft (of and from vehicles) is one type of crime that surveillance has been demonstrated to curtail, but – as a 2008 study of San Francisco’s police-controlled surveillance cameras showed – only in precisely targeted, contextually specific applications. 

The notion that carpeting a city with cameras will prevent crime is a fiction, even if there are real-time and immediate consequences to being caught on camera. In short, without enabling a police state, ubiquitous cameras are not the answer.   

And as to the “more subtle role” played by police that Larsen envisions, recent reporting by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals that to be a fiction as well. According to records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco Police “conducted mass surveillance of protesters at the end of May and in early June using a downtown business district’s camera network.”

Read the full piece at Cal Matters