Privacy SOS

A 21st century surveillance regime on San Francisco streets and buses

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The city of San Francisco operates about 18,500 public streetlights. In June 2012 it published a request for proposals indicating that the city intends to turn some or all of those lights into monitoring tools. But that's not all.

The 21st century streetlights are capable of much more than surveillance, as the San Francisco Bay Guardian explains:

[the Request for Proposals]…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.
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.
News that cities nationwide have been quietly equipping their public buses with audio recording equipment was met with resistance in 2012. San Francisco is one of the cities planning to acquire audio monitoring for its city bus system.
In a few years, there may be no place to hide from San Francisco police surveillance — unless you drive to get around. 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. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.