Spies on the corner

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

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GUARDIAN ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

rebecca@sfbg.com

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.

BIG PLANS

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.

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