By Sean Sposito, San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco’s public transit agency plans to purchase up to 150 cameras marketed for their ability to find and focus on human faces, although city officials insist the devices will monitor only traffic — not people.
The Municipal Transportation Agency is seeking a vendor that will sell cameras equipped with “face detection” technology, according to bidding documents posted online. Those cameras will scan streets from traffic-light poles, most of them on Van Ness Avenue and Franklin and Gough streets.
The planned purchase is meant to upgrade the major thoroughfares around the city’s Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which will be done sometime in 2019, said Paul Rose, a spokesman for the transportation agency.
The Samsung Techwin security cameras that the agency is seeking can detect multiple faces at a time, notice changes in scenery and alert viewers when people cross a designated line, according to company marketing materials.
Those technical specifications could make the cameras a useful surveillance tool — making the devices a cause for concern among privacy activists who worry they could facilitate mass government snooping.
But spying isn’t the city’s intention in soliciting bids for the contract, Rose said.
“We were bidding for a specific Samsung camera, specifically for the resolution,” he said.
The term “face detection” appeared in the bid only because it’s common for the agency to list all the specifications of a product it hopes to obtain when it alerts companies that the city is in the market. The idea is to ensure the agency gets the exact equipment it wants, he said.
The cameras, which will be purchased as part of the city’s SF Go traffic improvement program, will be used to make real-time adjustments to traffic signals along city streets, Rose said.
Employees will be able to pull up video feeds to monitor specific intersections when the cameras are installed after hearing about reports of, say, an accident, Rose said.
Tracking major corridors
The cameras “will allow us to have a visual of major corridors throughout the city and make adjustments based on congestion or major events or incidents, such as collisions, that we should route around,” Rose said.
The cameras will join roughly 30 others within the same program that already dot San Francisco streets, he said.
Although the cameras themselves are sophisticated enough to track specific individuals as they move through the city, the transportation agency lacks the software needed to perform such facial recognition, Rose said. And it has no intention of buying that technology, he added.
The cameras won’t even record, offering only a live view of the streets where they are deployed, Rose said.
Transportation agency employees will be the only ones allowed to monitor the feeds. That means that no outsiders, law enforcement included, will get access to them without special permission, Rose said.
Changes to those policies probably would require approval from the transportation agency’s directors and the Board of Supervisors, Rose said.
The potential for abuse still worries privacy advocates, who fear the cameras could easily be converted into a surveillance tool.
“These cameras would be trained on traffic, potentially picking up license plate data, which would allow for location tracking from law enforcement and others,” said Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst and media relations director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Just because the agency said it will not retain camera footage doesn’t mean that digital forensics experts couldn’t seek a judge’s permission to retrieve the data if they felt it was necessary, said Davi Ottenheimer, a security consultant who runs the San Francisco firm Flyingpenguin.
“Video that was not meant to be actively stored may still leave a residue or be found if not securely erased,” Ottenheimer said.
Scrutiny over cameras
Surveillance camera programs have faced scrutiny in the Bay Area.
After a killing on a BART train this month, the agency was derided for posting replica cameras in some train cars instead of working ones. BART said Wednesday that it will replace its decoy cameras with real ones.
The bid for the Municipal Transportation Agency’s new cameras was made in November. The agency will pick a vendor by mid-February, Rose said. The cost of the program will be determined by the bids the agency receives.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.