San Francisco Bets Big On Surveillance, Blankets City With 400 Automatic License Plate Readers


from the New-London,-California dept

There’s nothing more urbane than omnipresent surveillance, apparently. London is considered one of the classiest places on earth, what with its wealth of history, iconic landmarks, and… thousands and thousands of surveillance cameras. It’s also home to knife crime, pervasive racism, and soccer hooligans, with plenty of residents exhibiting all three of these traits simultaneously.

San Francisco apparently feels it should be the London of the West. Or at least the West Coast, seeing as New York City has been vying with London for the title of “Most Surveillance Cameras Per Capita” for years now.

The latest addition to San Francisco’s surveillance armada is hundreds of automatic license plate readers provided by yet another controversial surveillance tech company.

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.”

Sure, there’s some truth to this statement. A bus or an Uber is not a reliable getaway car. But does that justify setting up 400 cameras in San Francisco capable of creating a pretty comprehensive map of residents’ movements?

Then there’s the vendor. Flock has been a bit problematic ever since its inception. Its first customers were gated communities and homeowners’ associations who felt they needed to be able to keep an eye on every car traveling in and out of “their” neighborhoods.

Since then, Flock has aggressively courted law enforcement agencies, hoping to become another consumer brand with a lot of cops on board, much like Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras. The thing about shifting focus from high-end neighborhoods to striking massive deals with cop shops is that nothing much changes when it comes to who’s being targeted.

HOAs and gated communities love to keep unwanted people out. Law enforcement agencies deploy ALPRs to target cities’ least desirable residents. You can add tech to the cop, but you can’t take the inherent bias out of the business of policing.

Take Tulsa’s police force, which recently bought a flock of cameras after a one-year trial. Comparing the map of camera placement with a map of the racial makeup of the city shows cameras are placed exclusively in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods with none in the wealthy and white midtown neighborhoods. This creates a cycle in which more surveillance in Black and Brown neighborhoods leads to more reports of crime and therefore continuous justification of camera usage.

That’s the same law enforcement agency that’s apparently letting Flock Safety write its press releases for it. Flock’s PR wing is more than happy to produce statements for law enforcement and provides it public sector customers with “Public Information Officer Toolkits” that contain boilerplate for press releases that ensure Flock is credited for its important contribution to public safety. Local news agencies often publish these statements with few alterations, turning their publications into extensions of Flock’s marketing wing.

San Francisco’s police chief claims this rollout won’t create a “surveillance state.” (His exact words, btw.) But those erecting surveillance states rarely consider what they’re doing to be the creation of surveillance state. And even if they do see the surveillance state aspects, the last thing they’ll do is acknowledge this publicly.

Meanwhile, there’s hardly any evidence a massive network of ALPR cameras will do much more than allow law enforcement agencies to maintain a massive database of people’s movements.

Oakland police have had automated license plate readers on 36 patrol cars since 2008 and acknowledged that they got no investigative leads from the license plate readers in 2022, according to the most recent annual report. In that same time period, 34 stolen cars were recovered but no arrests were made.


BART launched a pilot program of license plate readers – 7 mobile and 2 fixed – at the MacArthur BART parking garage in May. The goal was to catch people breaking into cars and stealing catalytic converters. To date, no arrests have been made. However, BART noted in its annual report that 288 parking citations have been handed out during the pilot phase.


In response to a public records request, Tiburon said it had no records to disclose regarding arrests or costs relating to its automated license plate readers. However, Tiburon did provide numbers of cars recovered since 2010, when the town installed the cameras: 57 cars were recovered in 13 years – roughly four cars were recovered annually.

Is that sort of success really worth shelling out $2,500-3,000 a camera, plus thousands of dollars in “maintenance” fees? It’s not like it’s cheap. Piedmont, California — an affluent city with only 11,000 residents — is paying $100,000 in maintenance fees annually to service 39 cameras. The network being set up in San Francisco is ten times that size, which means it likely will be paying at least $1 million a year to Flock just to keep its ALPR network active.

This ALPR network isn’t going to solve San Francisco’s crime problem. While it may score the occasional win, about the only thing residents are guaranteed is that their plate/location records will be stored for extended periods of time and accessed improperly by officers because that’s just what they do when they have access to people’s personal data. And when it fails to do the job the city is paying it to do, it will just move on to the next advancement in surveillance tech, having learned nothing from this experience.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, alpr, license plate readers, license plates, london breed, san francisco, sfpd, surveillance

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