San Francisco Public Utilities Commission reveals plans to possibly use streetlights for surveillance
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
In a request for participants (RFP) issued by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) for a secure wireless control and communication system for San Francisco’s future network of dimmable LED streetlights, it is revealed that the network may also be used for street surveillance, public information broadcasts, gunshot monitoring and much more.
The plans seem quite similar to other streetlight surveillance and broadcasting systems like Intellistreets which boasts behavioral recognition technology, among other features.
While these Big Brother-esque plans might seem strange or frightening to some, it really isn’t all that surprising given that surveillance equipment has already been placed on public buses in San Francisco and elsewhere (see below video for more information).
The RFP, dated June 8, 2012 and released by Public Intelligence on January 21, 2013, reveals that the “integrated wireless communication monitoring and control system” designed at first to remotely manage the city’s future network of LED streetlights, could have many more troubling applications.
While the RFP itself at first glance makes it seem as though the wireless network will be used to transmit street surveillance and other information captured by devices other than the LED streetlights, a report by Rebecca Browe of the San Francisco Bay Guardian makes it clear that the streetlights themselves will do the surveillance.
“Each light has something akin to a smartphone embedded inside of it, and the interconnected network of lights can be controlled by a central command center,” reports Browe, describing technology nearly identical to that in the Intellistreets streetlights (see above linked article for more information).
Some of the “future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the City may include,” according to the RFP, “electric vehicle charging stations data transmission, electric meter reading, gunshot monitoring, street surveillance, public information broadcasts, street parking monitoring devices, traffic monitoring, traffic signal control, pollution monitoring” and the mysterious need labeled “others.”
According to Browe’s report, a pilot project has already begun in downtown San Francisco on Minna between Fourth and Sixth streets involving 14 streetlights.
As of now, these lights remotely read electric meters owned by the city, wirelessly transmit data from traffic cameras owned by the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency and also transmit data from traffic signals in the area.
Yet many questions are left unaddressed in the implementation of this program.
“Is a system of lighting fixtures that persistently collects data and beams it across invisible networks something San Franciscans really want to be installed in public space?” Browne asks.
“And, if these systems are ultimately used for street surveillance or traffic monitoring and constantly collecting data, who will have access to that information, and what will it be used for?”
Even Sascha Haselmeyer, cofounder of Living Labs Global Award (LLGA), acknowledged that there are some quite notable privacy implications to these types of systems.
“Many cities are deploying sensors that detect the Bluetooth signal of your mobile phone. So, they can basically track movements through the city,” Haselmeyer said.
“Like anything with technology, there’s a huge amount of opportunity and also a number of questions,” Haselmeyer continued. “You have movement sensors, traffic sensors, or the color [of a light] might change” based on a condition or behavior detected by the system.
“There’s an issue about who can opt in, or opt out, of what,” Haselmeyer said.
Indeed, it seems nearly impossible to opt out or in of a city-wide system like this.
Mary Tienken, Project Manager for LED Streetlight Conversion Project for the SFPUC, unsurprisingly attempted to downplay the potential to use the systems for street surveillance.
“The [SFPUC’s] interest is in creating an infrastructure that can be used by multiple agencies or entities … having a single system rather than have each department install its own system,” Tienken said, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
An especially interesting part of Browne’s report is the mention of the interest of Intellistreets in the San Francisco pilot program.
According to the article, Intellistreets CEO Ron Harwood said his company “was a contender for the pilot through LLGA; he even traveled to Rio and delivered a panel talk on urban lighting systems alongside [SFPUC Assistant General Manager Barbara] Hale and a representative from Oracle.”
“Harwood seemed less concerned about the activists who’ve decried his product as a modern day manifestation of Big Brother, and more worried about why his company was not chosen to provide wireless LED streetlights in San Francisco,” according to Browne.
Michael Tardif, Intellistreets Chief Administration Officer, believes this was because of some “inside deal” and declined to discuss why San Francisco had rejected the Intellistreets application.
Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was the SFPUC’s response to a public records request for details on the city’s participation in LLGA submitted last August.
“After a duly diligent search we find that there are no documents responsive to your request,” responded an SFPUC public records coordinator to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
“The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is not a participant, nor is involved with Living Labs Global Award,” continued the response. “Please know that we take our obligations under the Sunshine Ordinance very seriously.”
While that is clearly a lie, Charles Sheehan, communications manager at SFPUC (referred to only as “Sheehan”) in the article, claimed it was just an honest mistake.
Sheehan told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that in the public records division, “Clearly, nobody had any familiarity with LLGA.”
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