Spies on the corner

San Franciscans are in the dark about the city's plans for surveillance streetlights



In the Netherlands city of Eindhoven, the streetlights lining a central commercial strip will glow red if a storm is coming. It's a subtle cue that harkens back to an old phrase about a red sky warning mariners that bad weather is on the way. The automated color change is possible because satellite weather data flows over a network to tiny processors installed inside the lampposts, which are linked by an integrated wireless system.

Lighting hues reflecting atmospheric changes are only the beginning of myriad functions these so-called "smart streetlights" can perform. 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.

Since they have built-in flexibility for multiple adaptations, the systems can be programmed to serve a wide variety of purposes. Aside from merely illuminating public space, possible uses could include street surveillance with tiny cameras, monitoring pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or issuing emergency broadcasts via internal speaker systems.

The smart streetlights aren't just streetlights — they're data collection devices that have the potential to track anything from pedestrian movements to vehicle license plate numbers. And, through a curious process distinctly lacking in transparency, these spylights are on their way to San Francisco.


On Minna between Fourth and Sixth streets in downtown San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has installed a pilot project to test 14 streetlights that are connected by a wireless control system. The city agency plans to gauge how well this system can remotely read city-owned electric meters, wirelessly transmit data from tiny traffic cameras owned by the Municipal Transportation Agency, and transmit data from traffic signals.

The pilot grew out of San Francisco's participation in an international program called the Living Labs Global Award, an annual contest that pairs technology vendors with officials representing 22 cities from around the world. At a May 2012 LLGA awards summit in Rio de Janeiro, far outside the scope of the city's normal bidding processes, a Swiss company called Paradox Engineering won the right to start testing the high-tech lights in San Francisco. Within six months, Paradox Engineering and the SFPUC had the Minna streetlights test up and running.

Meanwhile, the city has issued a separate Request for Proposals for a similar pilot, which will test out "adaptive lighting" that can be dimmed or brightened in response to sensors that register pedestrian activity or traffic volume. The city is negotiating contracts with five firms that will test out this technology in three different locations, according to Mary Tienken, Project Manager for LED Streetlight Conversion Project for the SFPUC.

Under the program, five vendors will be chosen to demonstrate their wireless streetlights on 18 city-owned lights at three test sites: Washington Street between Lyon and Maple streets; Irving Street between 9th and 19th avenues; and Pine Street between Front and Stockton streets.

LED streetlights are energy-efficient and could yield big savings — but the lights do far more than shine. The RFP indicates that "future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the city" could include traffic monitoring, street surveillance, gunshot monitoring and street parking monitoring devices.


The NY Times, oddly, has reported the current wireless "smart" parking meters put in by the SFPark people "has been bedeviled by electromagnetic interference from overhead trolley lines." It's baffling how these were approved without some sort of EMF testing. I imagine these could run into the same problems. I also imagine they'll be as litigious as SF's stop light camera program, too.

Posted by Werther deGoethe on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

little fear for law-abiding citizens. If you have a car with OnStar, a clipper card, a credit card, a cell phone or a laptop, chances are the authorities can always figure out where you are.


Posted by anon on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

Can we have reliable continent-wide rapid transit and public sector health care finance as well because it is fairly standard in Europe, that should hold little fear for law-abiding oil, auto, insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical companies?

Posted by marcos on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

more comfortable with a diversity of outcomes.

Posted by anon on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

Libertarians in red states and counties are much more comfortable being subsidized by progressives in blue states and counties is what you're trying to say, and they've allied with corporations and religious wingnuts to screw the coasts and great lakes states and the Democrat party elites have joined in as well.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:49 pm
Posted by anon on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

falsely accuse and convict, or violate the civil or constitutional rights of innocent people, would they?


Another reason not to have a cell phone.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

Imagine the hilarity surrounding the newfound uses for the mental health databases to be used for "gun control."

Posted by marcos on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

Let me guess: no car, TV or ipod either.

How about vegan too, just to fill out the royal flush of hopelessness?

Posted by anon on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

No ipod, still prefer vinyl. The landline works fine. Two computers for a two person household.

Vegan, not freegan, but I have certain exceptions, like "all wedding cake is vegan," so not obsessively strict.

I have no idea what these lifestyle choices have to do with hopelessness. Do you equate personal property or spending money with happiness?

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

as all TV transmissions are now digital?

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

over-the-air transmissions, so no.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 16, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

This is off-topic.

Eddie, I'm a vegetarian (I eat eggs and rennet-free cheddar cheeses). Do you eat a vegan cheese you like and would recommend? I've looked at some and I think they all had carrageenan in them, which is controversial. It seems that carrageenan is in most things. Just thought I'd ask you. Gracias.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

I've not found any good vegan cheese.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

I worry about it every day.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

Snapples: No need for you to worry about it. Eat as much of it as you can.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

I had some Daiya last night at a friend's house and it was good. Escape From New York uses it on their vegan pizza and it works for us, just a little step down from real mozzarella.

I don't know the ingredients, though.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 8:26 pm

Concern troll,

You are a corporatized mindless sheeple. You are the problem but will likely never understand that because that's not something the sheeple have the ability to do. That's why they're called sheeple.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

What willful-ignorance! You would live most comfortably in a full-blown dictatorship while standing behind a "law-abiding citizen" shield, which the "authorities" would kick in.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

Those not aware of On-The-Media, will find these comments by Daniel Solove, law professor at George Washington University, disturbing or comforting depending on your sheeple index:


Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2013 @ 10:43 am

Those not aware of On-The-Media, will find these comments by Daniel Solove, law professor at George Washington University, disturbing or comforting depending on your sheeple index:


Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2013 @ 10:51 am

They recently installed a camera at the corner of 3rd and Evans. Big Brother is now watching you!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:12 pm
Posted by Guest on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 7:21 am

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