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Surveillance and civil liberties are both crucial to fixing San Francisco

Three dimensional render of security cameras pointed at an empty office chair.

By Chris Larsen

Chris Larsen is executive chairman and co-founder of Ripple, a crypto and blockchain company.

To many, today’s San Francisco looks like a failed state. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t read a headline about the growing “smash and grab” burglary problem, or professional crews hitting small businesses and residents. People are upset about crime in the city–and as someone who was born here and is now raising a family here, so am I.

Finding solutions to crime in SF is a complex problem. While there are many societal and economic factors at play, I believe we need to keep the focus on three basic principles: safety, justice, and privacy. Crucially, staying loyal to these principles involves trade-offs. Too much safety likely means too many disadvantaged citizens losing their right to justice, as we saw with “stop and frisk” policing and “three strikes” sentencing.

Privacy has equally complex tradeoffs; too much of it can enable criminals to hide and exploit the innocent. Sometimes the community can voluntarily choose to give up some privacy for more justice. In the 1970s, Harvey Milk argued that keeping one’s sexual preference private only empowered opponents to pass anti-gay laws. As he showed, it’s critically important to have strong, honest leaders who are aware of these trade-offs.

In today’s San Francisco, we’ve clearly traded away too much safety. The reasons are many: it can’t be pinned on any one person, cause, or event. But fear of crime is not just bad news for citizens' sense of security, it’s also a risk to criminal justice reform. Remember that California’s “three strikes” law was a voter backlash to a horrific crime

So where do we go from here?

For one, we must do more to show that the safety problem in San Francisco is being driven by sophisticated, tech-savvy criminal organizations earning tens of millions through smash and grabs, residential garage break-ins, and even catalytic converter thefts. These crews are recruiting and teaching misguided individuals, many of them our most vulnerable, to steal on an industrial scale. It's no coincidence that as soon as Covid dried up sufficient tourist targets, seemingly coordinated attacks on residential garages began. 

I don’t believe these crews were born from an opportunistic response to criminal justice reform, as some on the right would have it. While that might play a role, a much bigger factor is the worsening imbalance in tech tools that enable these crews versus the tools available to those charged with stopping them. Consider what’s in the professional criminal’s arsenal: unfettered access to online marketplaces to move their stolen goods, encrypted messaging to coordinate their crews, and social media to organize flash mobs. On the other hand, our safety infrastructure is way behind some of the developments happening in other major liberal cities. Something has to give.

One of the main reasons I support SF DA Chesa Boudin is that in addition to his essential work on criminal justice reform, he has supported tech countermeasures to break up these professional criminal operations. He’s embraced bait cars, a bold public safety tactic, to help track and break up the smash and grab supply chain. He also supports the networked camera system because he knows it helps make cases.

Another important step would be giving the police access to live video feeds and license plate readers, using the network cameras that are already established in much of the city. Our foundation helped provide resources for the city’s many community benefit districts to buy these camera networks. But that's the extent of it. We don’t control the cameras or data. They are controlled by city-supported non-profits, each with its own board that determines best practices.

These camera networks are certainly among the most pro-privacy surveillance cameras in the country. They don’t use facial recognition and don’t use audio–unlike Ring or Nest, which pick up outdoor conversations that everyone expects are private–and they store data locally for only 30 days.  Anyone–citizens, police, defense attorneys, the DA–has access to the video by request and in accordance with each community benefit district’s policies, though not live access. It’s a fair system that’s also critical to determining guilt or innocence when it comes to prosecutions.

Unfortunately, there are advocacy groups that oppose the use of these systems and seem to have no interest in finding the balance we all need. Organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Secure Justice have taken a maximalist position that is making matters much worse. Most recently, in Oakland, privacy groups overplayed their hand by pushing for a full ban on license plate readers instead of helping develop better policy to protect communities plagued by gun violence. 

Now, before I throw some much-deserved shade on EFF, let me talk about my history in the fight for privacy. I currently serve on the board of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a DC-based non-profit that has fought for digital privacy rights–including limits on surveillance technology–for decades. I believe I was asked to join their board due to my sponsorship of a 2004 financial privacy initiative to give Californians the right to opt-in to financial data sharing by financial institutions. That battle resulted in a strong California privacy bill and privacy remains a key priority for our philanthropic work. Make no mistake: EFF does amazing work in so many cases, but we must call out these groups when they go too far.

Last year when the George Floyd protests were happening, San Francisco’s mayor declared a state of emergency. The police accessed live video around Union Square to help stop the organized crews who were exploiting the protestor’s honest aims. This wasn’t the police trying to target protesters for retribution. Millions of dollars of goods were stolen, again not by protestors but by the same professional gangs that victimize San Francisco tourists and residents.

EFF sued the police, as if this was some outrageous violation of the protesters’ rights. They cherry-picked information to paint a misleading narrative, burying information about the millions stolen by the professional crews who could care less about justice reform.

We now have additional evidence that the Thanksgiving smash and grab event at Union Square was called specifically to exploit the anticipated protests from the Rittenhouse verdict (this time, the protests never occurred but a mob of smash and grabbers showed up anyway). According to the Wall Street Journal, those arrested in the melee used Snapchat to call the groups together and swarm the stores. 

Had the police had live access to video, this could have been easily prevented before the damage to property and our city’s reputation ever occurred. It's perplexing why an organization like EFF that does exceptional work reining in government and corporate violations of our privacy and civil rights stays completely silent on organized crime's access to tech that is every bit as threatening to our freedom.

Our city’s problems are complex because the goals of San Francisco are aspirational : we actually believe we can have it all. We should keep aiming high but reject those taking simplistic, maximalist positions and embrace those trying to find that elusive balance we all want. 

Editor’s Note: The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California, the other organization involved in the lawsuit against the city, dispute Chris Larsen’s characterization of events. EFF attorney Saira Hussain told The Standard that they’re suing because the police violated a city law requiring the department to get permission from the Board of Supervisors before using surveillance gear. She also said the use of video surveillance during the George Floyd protests was indeed about secret spying on protesters rather than stopping crime, as evidenced by the timeline of events and SFPD testimony. A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for next week.

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