With the spread of advanced spying technology, such as social media monitoring and cell-phone tracking, it’s easy to forget about the most ubiquitous form of surveillance—regular old security cameras.
But the San Francisco County District Attorney’s Office sure hasn’t forgotten. Prosecutors maintain a map and dataset of thousands of privately and publicly owned security cameras. When law enforcement is investigating a crime, officers can refer to this information to identify which cameras may have caught relevant footage. And through a public records request under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, EFF recently obtained most of this data—the locations of 2,753 cameras—and we are now making it available to the public.
The most obvious takeaway: the listed surveillance cameras are not evenly distributed across our community. Instead, the D.A. has collected the locations of cameras in distinct clusters. Generally, these fall into two categories: a) commercial/tourist areas; and b) lower income neighborhoods.
While the majority of these cameras are privately operated and not streaming to the government, that's becoming more and more common in other cities. Across the country, police are also exploring ways to attach face recognition and other real-time video analytics to the camera networks. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is now considering an ordinance [PDF] that would ensure that police do not have the ability to enact a project like that without going through a public process and seeking approval from the board. The measure would also include a ban of face recognition.
Before we reveal where these neighborhoods are, here are a few key points about the data.
What’s Missing from the Data
Just because a neighborhood is blank on this map does not mean it is free of surveillance cameras. This dataset is not a comprehensive accounting of all surveillance cameras in San Francisco. Rather, it is a dataset of the cameras that District Attorney staff have identified and included on a list. If a crime happens in an area that does not appear on this map, a police officer may still go in person to the scene of the crime and eyeball any cameras in the vicinity, then request footage from the owners.
The District Attorney refused to reveal the locations of an additional 510 cameras. Like many law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s office has an online portal where members of the public can register the locations of their cameras. By signing up, these camera owners agree that “Any footage containing or related to criminal activity may be collected by law enforcement for use as evidence during any stage of a criminal proceeding.” And in return, the District Attorney agrees to hold the information confidential, “unless subject to disclosure by court order.”
Locations are not exact. The data is mapped out using the Google Maps algorithm. So locations on this map are approximations, not exact GPS coordinates. In addition, we have not verified the existence of the cameras on this list, and so the data may not reflect the current state on the ground.
What’s in the Data
There are four distinct types of cameras in the dataset:
Community Safety Cameras (YELLOW) - There are 71 cameras around San Francisco dating back to a 2006 ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors. These cameras are purportedly positioned in public areas “in locations experiencing substantial crime.” Public housing projects were especially targeted. For more information, read the 2008 audit [PDF] and Hoodline’s investigative report into the “broken” system.
"Private" Cameras (BLACK) - There are 2,406 cameras listed as owned by private businesses, individuals, or attached to public buildings. Unfortunately, due to software constraints, we have had to split this category into two layers on the map. UPDATE: We are putting "Private" in quotes, because even though that's how the D.A. categorized them, it's clear some are on public property, including San Francisco City Hall, San Francisco Superior Court and the federal court building.
Red Light Cameras (RED) - Red light cameras automatically capture images of vehicles that run red lights. According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, “The system is designed so that it can only take a photograph during a red light and cannot take a photograph during a yellow or green light.” Although the SFMTA reports it has 20 red light cameras across the city, the District Attorney data includes 26 of these cameras.
Union Square Business Improvement District Cameras (PURPLE)* - Our map includes 249 cameras operated by the Union Square body funded by local property owners.
San Francisco’s Most Surveilled Places
- Union Square
- Civic Center/Tenderloin
- Chinatown/Jackson Square/Historic North Beach
- The Mission
- South of the I-80
- Western Addition
- Russian Hill
- The Embarcadero
Whether you’re window-shopping at high-end department stores, catching a ride on a cable car, or eating one of Tad’s famous broiled steaks, you’ll find the ever-watchful eyes of the Union Square Business Improvement District lining the streets of this shopping and tourism hub. According to the District’s website, there are actually a total of 350 cameras (although we only have records of 250 of them), which are funded by $1.2 million in private grants. According to USBID’s policies:
The system is not actively or continuously monitored. However, a Video Control Center (VCC) has been set up at the USBID Dispatch Office ("Dispatch Office") and is operated by Block by Block ("BXB") at 323 Geary Street, Suite 317, San Francisco, California 94102. The Video Control Center Operator (VCCO) on duty may monitor the live feed from time to time and has the ability to control some of the cameras. The VCC operates between the hours of 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday - Friday. The VCCO is responsible for checking all cameras daily for functionality and for handling all video requests received.
* An important caveat. While the District Attorney’s office originally produced this data in early 2018, by the end of 2018 they had decided to no longer rely on their USBID data “because the sources of those cameras could not be identified and confirmed.” We are including this data nevertheless, since reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, and USBID’s own published policies, indicate that the program is still ongoing and police can simply contact USBID for access to footage.
The Civic Center and Tenderloin areas have a reputation as high-crime areas and for large homeless populations. But these are also the center of San Francisco government, including City Hall, multiple courthouses and federal buildings, and the public library. Folks seeking public services and the professionals providing them alike will find they are under constant surveillance from private and Community Safety Cameras as they walk these streets.
Home to several tech companies, the Moscone Center, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the neighborhood south of Market Street is under heavy surveillance. If you attend the sex-positive Folsom Street Fair, please note that the District Attorney has documented a cluster of cameras on Folsom between 8th and 9th St.
There was a significant internal debate at EFF about how to describe this patch of surveillance cameras, which covers most of Chinatown and Jackson Square, and stretches a little into the Financial District. Meanwhile, what folks normally associate as North Beach—the area around City Lights bookstore—is also covered, although the Italian-restaurant-lined northern parts of Columbus Ave. aren’t on the D.A.’s radar.
Surveillance cameras criss-cross this region, which includes a series of neighborhoods that the U.S. Census indicates are home to predominantly Asian, Hispanic or Latinx, and Black or African American populations. A particularly prominent string of cameras runs down 3rd Street, with another stretch of cameras in the neighborhood along the westside of Bayshore Blvd.
Originally the home of the Ohlone people and later the Chicano/Latinx community, the gentrification of the Mission District has resulted in it being consistently ranked as one of the United States’ hipster neighborhoods. But as craft chocolate and indie fashion boutiques have moved into the neighborhood, so have surveillance cameras, particularly along Mission and Valencia streets. There are also several community safety cameras through the area, including four near Cesar Chavez Blvd.
There’s a swath of cameras between the freeway and Mission Creek that covers the Mission Bay, China Basin, South Beach, and South Park areas. However, once you cross to the south bank of the inlet, the D.A. map goes dark.
Once synonymous with live jazz and rock and roll, the neighborhoods around Fillmore Street have a troubled history, from the wartime internment of Japanese business owners to the forced resettlement of tenants to make room for redevelopment. Today, the northern end of this area hosts high-end businesses, which have a smattering of cameras. In the South end, on the other hand, there are a number of community safety cameras in neighborhoods with public housing. The sprawling Fillmore Center housing complex operates 20 private cameras, according to the D.A.
Made famous by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, Russian Hill represents one of the smaller but no-less dense patches of cameras. Many of these cameras are clustered around shops along Van Ness and Polk Streets.
Starting at Fisherman’s Wharf, there is a string of cameras leading all the way along Embarcadero Drive to Oracle Park. But if you want to know which Pier actually has the most registered surveillance cameras, it’s Pier 39.