400 license plate cameras coming to San Francisco, privacy advocates concerned

San Francisco's mayor has signed the legislation that will bring license plate cameras to the city. The city says it's fast tracking the cameras, and hopes to have them rolled out in the next few months. 

San Francisco police will soon have access to a network of 400 license plate cameras scattered throughout the city.

On Thursday, Mayor London Breed signed the legislation allowing SFPD to begin installing the Flock Safety camera system, seen here in a company video posted to social media.

Chief Bill Scott said the cameras will help track down criminals. 

"70% of crimes nationally are committed using vehicles or have vehicles involved in those crimes," said Scott. "So, that should tell you how important this type of technology is. Because, it's not limited to organized retail theft. It's violent crime, it's other types of crimes."

Privacy advocates worry the cameras will be abused by officers, invading the privacy of San Franciscans or surveilling the general public. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the cameras have been used disproportionately in lower income communities and communities of color and wrote a statement saying in part that the license plate readers, "can reveal sensitive information about a person, including where they live and work, where they worship and seek medical care, and who they associate with."

San Francisco's police chief said the cameras won't be deployed as part of a mass surveillance operation. 

"It gives us the ability to be way more precise than we currently have in terms of detecting criminal activity, and we have no interest in violating people's privacy," said Chief Scott. "This won't be a surveillance state."

The more than $17 million to pay for the cameras comes from a state grant aimed at reducing retail theft after high profile incidents in San Francisco.

Mayor London Breed is pushing to expand the ability for the police department to adopt and deploy the latest technology. She said recent efforts to crack down on crime have shown some success, and adopting the latest technology will help. 

"Look, we want our police department to have 21st century technology; drones, surveillance cameras and other things in order to combat the things that we're dealing with," said Breed.
The mayor is also looking to cut the red tape, and help speed the installation of cameras by putting them on existing utility poles in the city.


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