SFPUC proposes $19M in street light camera installations; privacy advocates not thrilled

A nearly $20 million proposal is in the works in San Francisco to install innovative monitoring devices on city street lights.

The devices have the ability to pick up the sound of glass breaking and gunshots, and could be used to aid law enforcement.

Currently, theses nodes are only being used to monitor power usage and efficiency. They were installed last May, through a pilot program with AnyCOMM, at a cost of $70,000. 

At 60 intersections throughout the city, you might find small white boxes at the top of certain street lights. The technological capabilities inside these devices are what the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission wants to invest $19 million into.

“What we see would be operation efficiencies. We would know immediately that a street light is broken. We wouldn't have to drive around with crews...we know immediately,” said Will Reisman with the SF PUC. 

The $19 million estimate would pay for devices in all 40,000 street lights in the city. The money would come from the PUC and we’re told would not be passed on to ratepayers. 

The PUC says while these devices can record audio and video, they're not planning on implementing that component for now. 

“We are considering moving forward to see how we can use video for our purposes which would mean if a water main was broken we could look at video to see what happened. We're not streaming it, we're not collecting it at this time, but those are potential operational uses for us when it comes to video,” said Reisman. 

That part of the proposal is being met with criticism not only from neighbors, but also the board of supervisors. 

“It shrinks our zone of privacy and that's something we should always be cautious of doing. At first blush it's not something I'm excited about,” said Ron Tyler of San Francisco. 

“The technology that's out there today has raised a lot of alarm bells for immigrant rights groups, and people of color who are disproportionately misidentified by the technology right now,” said Sunny Angulo, Chief of Staff to San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin's office says future plans for expansion could be blocked by the Secret Surveillance ordinance they're working on. 

“It would require any city department seeking board of supervisors’ approval for surveillance technology... adopt a use policy prior to doing that,” said Angulo. 

The PUC says if they go down that route, they would inform the board and the public. 

“Any further expansion of this technology would be corresponded with multiple conversations, robust and transparent oversight,” said Reisman. 

The PUC also says the video would only look at their own equipment, not people, and they would not collect or store the video and/or data. 

The benefit of all this is eventual cost savings for the PUC. This program is in the research stage so there's no hard numbers yet on just how much savings they'd see.