Spies on the corner - Page 3

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

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GUARDIAN ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

San Francisco's involvement in LLGA began with Chris Vein, who served as the city's Chief Technology Officer under former Mayor Gavin Newsom. (Vein has since ascended to the federal government to serve as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation for President Barack Obama.)

To find the right fit for San Francisco's wireless LED streetlights "challenge" under the LLGA program, a judging panel was convened to score more than 50 applicant submissions received through the program framework. Judges were selected "based upon knowledge and contacts of people in the SFPUC Power Enterprise," Tienken explained. The scoring system, Haselmeyer said, measures sustainability under a rubric developed by the United Nations.

Jurists for San Francisco's streetlight program were handpicked from the SFPUC, the San Francisco Department of Technology, Phillips, and several other organizations. An international jurist is designated by LLGA for each city's panel of jurists, Haselmeyer said, "so as to avoid any kind of local stitch-up."

He stressed that "the city is explicitly not committing to any procurement." Instead, vendors agree to test out their technology in exchange for cities' dedication of public space and other resources. Tienken, who manages the city's LED Streetlight Conversion Project, noted that "Paradox Engineering is not supposed to make a profit" under the LLGA program guidelines. "We'll pay them a $15,000 stipend," she said, the same amount that will be awarded to the firms that are now in negotiation for pilot projects of their own.

"San Francisco is using this to learn about the solution," Haselmeyer added. "This company will not have any advantage," when it comes time to tap a vendor for the agency's long-term goal of upgrading 18,500 of its existing streetlights with energy-saving LED lamps and installing a $2 million control system.

At the same time, the program clearly creates an inside track — and past LLGA participants have landed lucrative city contracts. Socrata, a Seattle-based company, was selected as a LLGA winner in 2011 and invited to run a pilot project before being tapped to power data.SFgov.org, the "next-generation, cloud-based San Francisco Open Data site" unveiled by Mayor Ed Lee's office in March of 2012.

The mayor's press release, which claimed that the system "underscores the Mayor's commitment to providing state of the art access to information," made no mention of LLGA.

PRIVACY AND PUBLIC SPACE

Throughout this process of attending an international summit in Rio, studying applications from more than 50 vendors, selecting Paradox as a winner, and later issuing an RFP, a very basic question has apparently gone unaddressed. 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?

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? Haselmeyer acknowledged that the implementation of such a system should move forward with transparency and a sensitivity to privacy implications.

"Many cities are deploying sensors that detect the Bluetooth signal of your mobile phone. So, they can basically track movements through the city," Haselmeyer explained. "Like anything with technology, there's a huge amount of opportunity and also a number of questions. ... You have movement sensors, traffic sensors, or the color [of a light] might change" based on a behavior or condition. "There's an issue about who can opt in, or opt out, of what."

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