Some 100 of the eventual 400 law-endorsement license-plate readers coming to San Francisco are already up and running, and SFPD says they're making arrests on the daily with the data these are bringing in. That said, these cameras are surveilling the travel of non-criminals too.

We learned in January that the SFPD was getting 400 license-plate readers to hopefully crack down on car thieves and sideshow stunt riders, as part of a $17 million grant to SF from the Gavin Newsom administration meant to combat organized retail theft. Well, 100 of these license-plate readers have already been installed, according to the Chronicle, and that paper reports that these Flock Safety plate readers have quickly led to many immediate arrests. But they won’t say how many.

The Chronicle does have some detail that the arrests "included the May 13 arrest of a woman wanted in an organized retail theft case; the May 3 arrest of three suspects in a San Francisco State University carjacking; and the Saturday arrest of a suspect wanted by by San Jose police in a sexual assault case."

But that’s a small sample size. Are these things really worth the pot of millions that the state has handed us for them? Or is this some law enforcement-industrial complex ruse that just gets plucky salespeople and hardware manufacturers richer on the taxpayer dime?

“We’re making arrests every day based on it,” SFPD spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky told the Chronicle. He cited data that says that 75% of US crimes involve a vehicle, and added that “just having that [license plate reader] information is hugely beneficial.”

Arrests everyday does sound like pretty good value. The Flock Safety license-plate readers employ camera infrastructure, but then run that visual data through police databases, both locally and regionally. They can then notify police via an email, an app alert, or even to a squad car’s screen that they’ve found a match, referred to as a “hit.”

These are separate from speed enforcement cameras, and are not meant for going after low-level moving violation offenders. They’re intended to catch the bigger fish in the crime game. But there are concerns they can also surveil those who are not involved with crime at all, as literally all motorists' movement is being tracked here.

“They’re not able to just say ‘we’re collecting data on criminals,’” Electronic Frontier Foundation director of investigations Dave Maass said to the Chron. “They’re collecting data, in fact, on innocent people going about their lives.”

The Chronicle cites the potential to illegally “spy on protesters, political rivals or journalists.” But consider also that police officers sometimes tend to go pretty medieval on their ex-lovers, and these license-plate readers could, theoretically, be the Holy Grail for a cop who, say, wanted to stalk their ex. The Chronicle also cites the case of Denise Green, an SF woman whose car SFPD misidentified as stolen, and they put Green on her knees with a loaded gun to her head.

That mistake was the fault of a license-plate reader error, which produced a false positive and wrongly identified Green’s car as stolen. As with most technologies, they’re often not as robust as the plucky salespeople and hardware manufacturers sell them as.

Related: SF Is Going to Install 400 License Plate Readers to Hopefully Deter Car Theft, Sideshows, and Such [SFist]

Image: Flock Safety