Spies on the corner - Page 4

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

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GUARDIAN ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

Tienken and Sheehan downplayed the RFP's reference to "street surveillance" as a potential use of the wireless LED systems, and stressed that the pilot projects are only being used to study a narrow list of features. "The PUC's interest is in creating an infrastructure that can be used by multiple agencies or entities ... having a single system rather than have each department install its own system," Tienken said. The SFPUC is getting the word out about the next batch of pilots by reaching out to police precinct captains and asking them to announce it in their newsletters, since "streetlighting is a public safety issue," as Tienken put it.

Haselmeyer acknowledged that public input in such a program is important: "It's very important to do these pilot projects, because it allows those community voices to be heard. In the end, the city has to say, look — is it really worth all of this, or do we just want to turn our lights on and off?"

LIGHTS, BUT NO SUNSHINE

One company that is particularly interested in San Francisco pilot is IntelliStreets, a Michigan firm that specializes in smart streetlights. IntelliStreets CEO Ron Harwood told the Guardian that his company was a contender for the pilot through LLGA; he even traveled to Rio and delivered a panel talk on urban lighting systems alongside Hale and a representative from Oracle.

A quick Google search for IntelliStreets shows that the company has attracted the attention of activists who are worried that these lighting products represent a kind of spy tool, and a spooky public monitoring system that would strip citizens of their right to privacy and bolster law enforcement activities.

"It's not a listening device," Harwood told the Guardian, when asked about speakers that would let operators communicate with pedestrians, and vice-versa. "So you can forget about the Fourth Amendment" issues.

Harwood seemed less concerned about the activists who've decried his product as a modern day manifestation of Big Brother, and more worried about why his company was not chosen to provide wireless LED streetlights in San Francisco. After being passed over in the LLGA process, Harwood said IntelliStreets responded to the RFP issued in the weeks following the Rio summit. Once again, Harwood's firm didn't make the cut.

Since his company provides very similar services to those described in the RFP, Harwood said he was "confused" by the outcome of the selection process. IntelliStreets' Chief Administration Officer Michael Tardif was more direct. "Clearly we think this was an inside deal," Tardif told the Guardian. Tienken, for her part, declined to discuss why San Francisco had rejected IntelliStreets' application.

And when a public records request was submitted to the agency last August for details on San Francisco's participation in LLGA, the response was opaque at best. "After a duly diligent search we find that there are no documents responsive to your request," an SFPUC public records coordinator responded via email. "The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is not a participant, nor is involved with Living Labs Global Award. Please know that we take our obligations under the Sunshine Ordinance very seriously." That was just an honest mistake, Sheehan tells the Guardian now by way of explanation. In the public records division, "Clearly, nobody had any familiarity with LLGA."

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