Tech billionaire funding network of 1,000 security cameras around SF addresses privacy concerns

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Friday, July 17, 2020
1,000 cameras monitoring crime in SF raise privacy concerns
Ripple executive Chris Larsen addresses privacy concerns after providing funds for network of 1,000+ security cameras in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A network of more than 1,000 privately funded cameras across San Francisco is aiming to cut down on crime in the city. But some have concerns over privacy.

Eva Liang is a college student who met us outside the Restaurant Depot in San Francisco. It's where her 63-year-old mother was brutally attacked and robbed nearly three months ago, by multiple men who knocked her to the ground and stole her purse.

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"She's definitely trying to move on but of course with this type of traumatizing incident you just don't forget it," says Liang who addressed this being the reason why her mom didn't want to revisit the scene of the incident for the interview.

Despite SFPD saying they obtained surveillance video, there have been no arrests. Liang believes if there were more security cameras she'd be able to seek justice for her mom.

"We need to prioritize safety especially among seniors," says Liang.

Chris Larsen, tech billionaire and executive chair of Ripple, a cryptocurrency technology company- wanted to do just that; make San Francisco safer, not only for seniors but for all. Frustrated with the crime he witnessed in Russian Hill near Lombard Street, he had an idea.

VIDEO: Ripple exec, Chris Larsen, addresses concerns over extensive system of security camera in SF

Ripple exec Chris Larsen addresses privacy concerns after providing funds for network of 1,000+ security cameras in San Francisco.

"It's unfortunate it's become a huge magnet for smash and grab crimes...we saw that all the time all times of the day it was torturous," said Larsen. "They drive up and within seconds the luggage and cash and passports are stolen...tourists are heartbroken."

Three years ago Larsen began funding community business districts to install and monitor a network of cameras across the city. There are just over a thousand to date. Footage can be requested by the police, the DA or victims themselves.

"The community groups can get this done faster than if you were to make this a citywide government-sponsored project which would cost a ton of money," says Larsen.

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It's supposed to feel good to get home after a long day. But instead of relaxing, one woman ended up fighting for her life.

At a time when lawmakers are already proposing bans on facial recognition software for law enforcement and consumers are fed up with privacy on social media these security cameras add an extra level of privacy concerns.

Matthew Guariglia, Policy Analyst for Electronic Frontier Foundation says he was shocked when he first learned of the number and density of the cameras.

"For instance, you may not want someone to know you're seeking mental health help or that you're seeing an immigration attorney. You don't know who's going to get the footage on the other end and you don't know what they're going to do with it," says Guariglia.

We brought these concerns to Larsen, who acknowledged privacy is a real concern in the US and citizens should be skeptical of how surveillance is used. Currently, New York City operates the Domaine Awareness System of cameras which is in partnership with Microsoft and the NYPD.

"We don't have a data protection agency... it underscores we need new laws soon because the technology is way ahead of the law."

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But because this network is erased every 30 days and is monitored by non-profit community organizations, decisions on how that information is used, won't be sold.

"That's where these systems can have more privacy than every house putting up a ring door camera from Amazon and a Ring from Google, who knows what's being recorded and where it's going."

As for Liang's mother's case, we checked, and there are no cameras in that area funded by Larsen...yet. But other districts have expressed interest in participating in the program.

"If these cameras were installed the day my mom got attacked I think it could have helped a lot," said Liang.