January 2014

Neighborhood Surveillance System Suspended Over Privacy Concerns

Keith Burbank

The Kansas Street SAFE Neighborhood Association and a San Francisco startup, Koozoo, have suspended a camera surveillance system that allowed residents to watch live video footage of street activity in the neighborhood over the Internet. The system was launched in November, but concerns about privacy issues and whether enough public vetting occurred before going live prompted Kansas Street SAFE and Koozoo to halt operations. The crime fighting measure was an attempt to take advantage of new technology, rather than a response to any increases in crime rates. 

“Working with Koozoo, we decided to suspend the program on Saturday, December 21, 2013, until we do the necessary research on liability, public notification and privacy concerns,” said Ray O’Connor, captain, Kansas Street SAFE Neighborhood Association. O’Connor said the two groups will seek advice from the offices of District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, the District Attorney, and the California State Attorney General before turning the cameras back on. “There is not an estimate on when we will reactivate the cameras, as that depends on how the conversations proceed and what results from them,” said O’Connor. 

 “At this time, [the] system is live, but no public notice has been given” except to neighbors who participate in the Kansas Street SAFE group, said a resident, who asked not to be named, prior to the suspension decision. According to the resident, a member of his condominium association board attended a meeting with Koozoo and the Kansas Street SAFE group at which Koozoo’s legal advisor claimed that the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment didn’t apply to commercial uses or private citizens. In response one meeting attendee noted “Google’s decision to blur faces and license plates on Google Maps.” 

“I don’t think I can be more public about what’s going on,” O’Connor said before he and Koozoo chief executive officer Drew Sechrist decided to suspend the program. According to O’Connor, the association is a public organization, meeting minutes are posted on its website and Facebook page, and the group regularly sends information to Cohen’s office. In regard to privacy concerns, O’Connor said cameras aren’t pointed at neighbors’ homes, but at the street. And surveillance cameras on individual properties aren’t new, he said; his group just is taking advantage of advances in technology. 

The suspended surveillance system consisted of seven cameras along Kansas Street from 22nd to 26th streets, which allowed neighbors who are part of the surveillance group to view footage outside another member’s home. Koozoo had offered to install and maintain up to 10 cameras for the Kansas Street neighborhood SAFE group in what O’Connor called a pilot program. O’Connor said Koozoo has been talking with other San Francisco groups about starting similar projects. 

According to Koozoo’s chief executive officer, Drew Sechrist, increases in Internet capacity have made a localized surveillance system possible. “We’re talking with other neighborhoods,” Sechrist said, adding that the company has spoken with upwards of a dozen groups, with the dialogue around privacy concerns being extremely active. To help address those issues, Tim Sparapani, who ran the American Civil Liberties Union’s privacy practice from 2005 to 2009, is advising Koozoo. “We take it very seriously,” Sechrist said of the privacy concerns. Sechrist pointed out that cameras are all around us, becoming more pervasive, and played a significant role in capturing the Boston Marathon bombers. 

Koozoo has already established itself as a business that enables people to broadcast live video clips of their location. But the work with neighborhood groups is a new niche for the company, O’Connor said. 

“We’re learning very rapidly,” Sechrist said, prior to the suspension. Koozoo planned to use the Kansas Street project as a chance to fine tune the technology, and see what features residents want. Besides viewing live footage, participants in a surveillance group are able to view seven days of previously recorded footage, and save video clips to show police. The system matches San Francisco police captains’ encouragement of officers to look for video footage when investigating crimes. 

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