If you walk through densely populated commercial corridors on a regular basis, chances are you’re being recorded. Based on information compiled by CommunityCam, a data visualization project plotting the location of security cameras, there are at least 1,100 surveillance devices installed throughout San Francisco – and possibly many more.
Billed as a “community service initiative” designed to make neighborhoods safer, the CommunityCam platform was developed by VideoSurveillance.com, a proprietor of IP-connected CCTV systems that has served customers ranging from California Pacific Medical Center to Harvard University to Lockheed Martin.
The web-based platform reveals the precise locations of visible security cameras throughout the city, incorporating a crowd-sourcing component that allows anyone to plot the location of a camera.
San Francisco neighborhoods with the highest concentration of surveillance cameras include the Financial District, the areas around North Beach and Chinatown, and the Marina, the data shows. The vast majority of the cameras are privately owned, but the map plots all visible security cameras regardless of whether they’re operated by commercial interests or public agencies.
VideoSurveillance.com president Josh Daniels, a Portland resident who previously lived in San Francisco, launched the effort, which he described as an effort to improve public safety.
“The CommunityCam network of cameras gives community residents a way to investigate when an incident occurs,” Daniels said in an interview with the Guardian. Noting that accidents such as cyclist collisions or physical assaults were common in San Francisco streets, he said, "it's just impossible to investigate these kinds of incidents in San Francisco" without the presence of security cameras. He called the project "a way to let people know that video surveillance can be used in very positive ways."
While Daniels is not formally partnering with police, he described law enforcement as “very interested in the locations of the cameras” and said he’d met with law enforcement groups in San Francisco as well as neighborhood groups, landlords, and building managers. He added that across the board, police agencies are “very strapped from a financial resources standpoint,” so his project can serve as a tool for those agencies without additional cost.
And collaboration with law enforcement could expand further down the road, Daniels said. “In the future there’s potential to expand the program and expand the services to give law enforcement access to privately held cameras,” Daniels said, “but that’s a long way off.” Media representatives from SFPD had not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment by press time.
While the CommunityCam platform introduces a new level of transparency to private security systems installed throughout the city, it also raises a number of questions. While it’s billed as a public safety program designed to illustrate the useful attributes of CCTV, CommunityCam also serves to illustrate the growing surveillance infrastructure in public space, a phenomenon that necessarily raises questions about the erosion of privacy in a hyper-connected world.
The early-stage data-mapping project also presents questions about how this tool could ultimately be developed and utilized, particularly if it's used toward developing a broader or more centralized surveillance infrastructure. If public safety officials or private security entities use the data to identify gaps where public space isn’t being monitored, it could be used to justify the installation of still more cameras.
Earlier this year, the Guardian spotlighted San Francisco’s pilot project testing out “smart” streetlights that would be wired into a centralized IP-connected system, with possible future uses as street surveillance. We’ve also kept an eye on the San Francisco Police Department’s efforts to collect surveillance footage from local bars.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates have flagged concerns about the proliferation of CCTV cameras in public spaces. Privacy advocates focused on CCTV are particularly active in the UK, where studies suggest the average Londoner is caught on camera 300 times per day on average, and new technologies such as cameras that incorporate license plate readers have been adopted in smaller cities.
Daniels said he’s very familiar with these concerns, but was dismissive of the idea that security cameras in public space presented any sort of encroachment on personal privacy. “My own opinion is that I don’t believe I have an expectation to privacy in a public setting,” he said.
While Daniels noted that CommunityCam is the first-ever attempt to plot security cameras in an interactive online format, it’s not actually true. Last summer, European privacy activists who wished to draw attention to the proliferation of CCTV cameras led a game called “camspotting” in Brussels, part of an international activism effort known as “1984 Action Day.” After going out and logging camera locations, they plotted them on an online map.