SF considers ‘sweeping smart city’ installation of devices with cameras, microphones

San Francisco may install thousands of devices with the capacity to record video and audio and provide wireless service on street lights citywide, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

The $19 million proposal to purchase the devices manufactured by Gold River-based anyCOMM Holding Corporation comes after San Francisco has tested 60 of them in select areas of The City since May 2018.

In addition to managing the LED street lights, the nodes create significant opportunities for San Francisco to expand wireless service, assist law enforcement, manage traffic and become more of a “smart city” since they create a network over which objects enabled to collect data can transmit it, often referred to as the “internet of things.”

For a project on this scale, which involves installing the nodes on tens of thousands of street lights, city officials said the devices could cost about $500 apiece, although anyCOMM CEO Robert Praske said that was a low estimate. He added that recent trade tariffs with China, where some parts of the device are made, have sent the cost up by more than 30 percent.

The company is petitioning for a federal tariff exemption and that has slowed down the company’s planned full scale deployment of 10,000 devices in Yuma, Ariz., which would be the first city to deploy them on that scale, Praske said.

There is also potential for revenue through public-private partnerships. For example, The City could come to an agreement with internet service providers to lease the devices to expand the free public wi-fi service, which is currently only available in limited areas, and also offer a pay service of their own.

However with cameras, microphones and data sharing come privacy concerns, which were raised when other cities decided to install the devices, such as Yuma, Arizona, and San Jose. San Jose piloted the devices but no longer uses them, Praske said.

As the multi-million dollar project advances, it could become the first new tech proposal impacted by surveillance legislation introduced in January by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. The legislation imposes a number of requirements before a city department could purchase surveillance technology to protect civil liberties.

Peskin said he was unaware of anyCOMM. Peskin’s legislative said Lee Hepner said that the legislation is mainly a “transparency and oversight measure” and is meant to give the public the information “it needs in order to make decisions about technology like this.”

In addition to outright banning facial recognition technology, the legislation requires a plan that the Board of Supervisors must approve detailing how a city department would use the technology and other stipulations like who has access to it, deployment locations and how long the data is retained. A violation of the plan would constitute a misdemeanor. If the technology is already used in other cities, the departments must provide some analysis on how it has worked there.

To decide whether to allow the surveillance purchase, the board would have to consider, under the legislation, if the benefits outweigh the costs and if there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect civil liberties. If approved, an annual report is required detailing usage.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends digital privacy and free speech, raised concerns about the anyCOMM technology when the San Jose city council debated using them in 2017.

Nathan Sheard, EFF’s grassroots advocacy organizer, said that EFF does not have a position against smart city “technology that allows cities to better manage their resources,” but supports having laws and policies in place to determine the data use and receive public feedback “before those devices go into service.”

“We certainly don’t have a position against smart city, smart devices in and of themselves, but what we certainly do have concern about is the security of the information that’s collected as well as the information potentially being shared with law enforcement in ways that could potentially limit or deter people from expressing their First Amendment protected rights and other important civic freedoms,” Sheard said.

He suggested San Francisco should follow Oakland’s example and establish a privacy advisory commission, a panel of independent experts on surveillance technology. Otherwise, he said, the tech privacy concerns “will either not be thought out as thoroughly as they should be or the vendors will then become that privacy expert.”

Praske said they are willing to “take anybody’s input” around privacy concerns. He said the device can be deployed “with nothing operating” and that “policy can be created to enable this device to become smarter over time.”

“I have privacy concerns about everything that we see out on the street today. I think we need to be super careful about that,” Praske said.

San Francisco’s involvement with anyCOMM began in the last term of the late Mayor Ed Lee and was encouraged by Jay Nath, Lee’s then chief innovation officer, according to Brad Taylor, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s technical operations manager.

Praske was apparently a Lee supporter, having donated $500 to his mayoral campaign in April 2015.

The SFPUC, which oversees The City’ street lights, is the lead agency on the anyCOMM project.

“At its heart it’s a lighting control and management system, but anyCOMM chose to take an integrated approach and basically put all the technologies that you have in a smart phone in this device,” Taylor said.

That opens the door to using the devices in all kinds of ways, from using the cameras to detect flooding to using the microphones to detect gunshots, the smashing of glass or even the sounds of a spray paint can signaling graffiti in progress.

The microphone cannot hear conversations, Praske said. “This only listens in a particular spectrum,” he said.

The devices have four cameras and can store data for 28 days. Taylor can access the piloted devices from inside the SFPUC offices at 525 Golden Gate Ave.

The City’s mandated five-year plan for technology spending, which was introduced to the board by Mayor London Breed on March 5, lists tech projects by name and refers to this project as “Smart City Controllers.” Of the total cost, the plan calls for spending $16.6 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“Streetlights are very valuable infrastructure which we plan to use to implement sweeping Smart City infrastructure along with the light controls,” the agency said in a funding request document with the Committee on Information Technology, which oversees technology spending.

Still, Taylor said the project remains in the “feasibility stage.” He said in May the agency will formalize the pilot’s findings and will continue to explore ways to monetize the devices, such as by licensing them to internet service providers and cell phone companies as well as have discussions with city department like police and fire about how they might use them.

Praske said discussions with the SFPUC around different business models have begun.

In a 2017 draft businesses case, Taylor already examined revenue possibilities.

“The SFPUC street light infrastructure covers almost the entire city with only a few exceptions,” the business case reads. “This real estate has tremendous value in terms of providing public WiFi services across the city.”

There is also a growing “internet of things” market.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is a potentially huge market with connected devices becoming ubiquitous,” reads Taylor’s 2017 draft business plan. The plan notes SFPUC’s foray into the IoT with sensors to detect saltwater intrusion in the wastewater system, gauges to measure rainfall and leak detection sensors.

Taylor said that the agency is pursuing the “full-scale deployment” of the devices on about 40,000 street lights after the anyCOMM technology proved itself to be a “very capable lighting control and management system.” The SFPUC owns about 26,000 street lights and PG&E an additional 20,000.

The devices, which twist into what’s called a NEMA socket on top of the lights, are used to turn on and off the lights, provide energy usage data and location as well as alerts, such as if the pole is struck by a car. There is a potential to dim the lights to save power and also to brighten them.

He continued, “It’s also proven itself with some of the more advanced use cases.”

The future of the project depends on this year’s budget process and the outcome of Peskin’s legislation

“We are sort of in a wait and see mode,” Taylor said. He said one possible way to address privacy concerns may be to have faces and license plates blurred “before we receive the data.”

The Committee on Information Technology, comprised of city departments, is scheduled to discuss Peskin’s legislation Thursday along with a citywide drone policy. The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee may hold a hearing on Peskin’s legislation as early as April 12.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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