Mar 25, 2024 - News

San Francsico moves to install license plate readers

Illustration of a security camera topped with police car lights

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

San Francisco's police department has started installing 400 license plate reader cameras throughout the city, an effort city officials have said will enhance public safety.

Why it matters: City leaders say the cameras will be used for license plate recognition, assisting with criminal investigations, alerting police of wanted people or wanted vehicles, and locating victims, witnesses, suspects and missing people.

  • These cameras won't be used for facial recognition or functioning as red light or speed cameras, according to the city.

Yes, but: Proposition E, which San Francisco voters approved this month, enables the police to use drones for car chases and install public surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology.

  • Plus, the city's transportation department is separately working to install speed cameras on streets with high numbers of traffic-related injuries and fatalities.

Threat level: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, has warned against license plate reader cameras, arguing they can "paint an intimate portrait of a driver's life" and "target drivers who visit sensitive places," like immigration centers, union halls, protests and more.

What they're saying: The "license plate readers can play a critical role in disrupting retail theft, car break-ins, sideshows, and other criminal activity," Mayor London Breed said in a press release last week.

  • San Francisco Police Department chief Bill Scott said the technology gives officers "another tool to fight crime."

What's next: The city is placing the cameras at various intersections and locations, and city officials expect all 400 cameras to be operating within the next three months.

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