San Francisco streetlights will spy on passersby

San Francisco streetlights will spy on passersby
San Francisco, California is the second-most densely populated urban area in the US, but those nearly one million residents of the City by the Bay are about to lose what little amount of privacy they have.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has started work on a program that will update a number of the city’s 18,000 streetlights during the next few years. Those new installations might do a whole lot more than just illuminate sidewalks and keep streets lit for cars, though. Through part of a pilot program, city officials can send data wirelessly between more than a dozen of those streetlights.

What kind of data can a lamppost collect, though? In San Francisco, the answer is a lot. According to a report in the SF Bay Guardian, Paradox Engineering of Switzerland has already started testing streetlamps in the city that have the ability to wirelessly transmit data from traffic signals and surveillance cameras from one device to another. Soon, though, there will be more than just 14 cameras with that kind of capability. Additionally, the city is currently searching five vendors to test even more advanced lampposts across the city.

During last year’s Living Labs Global Award in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the LLGA gave Paradox the go-ahead to start testing lights in San Francisco. In a just-issued Request for Proposals, the city calls on others to pitch similar products. In the request, the City writes that as they begin replacing the 18,000 streetlights, the SFPUC “also plans to install an integrated wireless communication monitoring and control system” in order to manage the devices.”

“Ideally, the wireless system will accommodate other wireless devices, unrelated to street lighting, in a common wireless system mesh network,” the request reads.

When the City goes more into detail, the kind of devices that will need to connect to the lamps are brought to light. “Future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the City,” reads the report, may include gunshot monitoring, electric meter reading, street surveillance, public information broadcasts and other types of monitoring.

"San Francisco thought they were upgrading their 18,000 lamps with LEDs and a wireless control system, when they realized that they were in fact laying the groundwork for the future intelligent public space," LLGA cofounder Sascha Haselmeyer tells Open Source Cities.

San Francisco isn’t the first city to bring this new form of surveillance to light — literally — but it might be the biggest. In 2011, Farmington Hills, Michigan became the first city in the US to rely on something called the Intellistreets project to watch over pedestrians. For $3,000 a piece, those high-tech luminaries don’t just provide light, but also record audio and video, all data that can be sent from device to device.

“This is not a system with spook technology,” Intellistreets founder Ron Harwood told WXYZ News when his small Michigan town first started trying out the devices. With 18,000 traffic lights in a city of 800,000 possibly embracing that same technology, though, it says a lot about the growing trend of secretive surveillance in the US.

“We've become somewhat accustomed to being visually monitored by the surveillance cameras that dot our urban landscapes, but audio monitoring and widespread, covert monitoring are not so common,” the PrivacySOS.org blog reports.

San Francisco first began installing public surveillance cameras in 2005, and four years later a report from the University of California Berkeley found that the devices failed to detersviolent crimes, including homicide, as well as rapes and drug dealing.

“Precious public safety dollars need to be spent on solutions that actually work to reduce violent crime, like community policing, intervention programs and improved lighting, not on more ineffective and intrusive cameras,” Nicole Ozer of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California office said in 2009. Four years later, however, it seems as if the city is deadest on installing even more devices.

“In a few years, there may be no place to hide from San Francisco police surveillance – unless you drive to get around,” PrivacySOS adds. “The increasingly aggressive San Francisco surveillance regime appears to disproportionately affect low income people. In the privacy of your own car, you are probably free from city monitoring. But if you walk to work or take the bus, you better mind what you say.”