Sometime after Christmas, denizens of Market Street in downtown San Francisco noticed something new hanging from the light poles along the city's grand boulevard: cameras.
New cameras, to be precise, aimed at the street between First Street and the Embarcadero, the area that will in a few weeks be closed down to traffic to make way for the Super Bowl and the “Super Bowl City” “fan village” intended to occupy well-heeled football fans' time before they make the trek down to Santa Clara for the big game.
Owing to the timing and the location — just before the Super Bowl, where the super crowds are going to be — Twitter users, naturally, assumed the worst and went agog. Under the hashtag #SuperBowlSurveillance, users decried the cameras as security-state intrusions.
But according to the cameras' operator, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the cameras aren't sinister. They're not even “security cameras” — they're traffic cameras, according to SFTMA spokesman Paul Rose, and are meant to keep an eye on buses and trains, not people. Nevertheless, privacy advocates aren't convinced, and fear the cameras could fall victim to mission creep.
[jump] Perhaps owing to the timing and to the lack of public notice before the cameras' appearance on the streets, their appearance last week was met with deep suspicion…
…and prompted a public reply from the SFMTA (over the weekend, no less).
The cameras, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose, are some of the 25 cameras recently installed as an expansion and continuation of a program called “SFGo” that's meant to “intelligently” monitor and manage traffic flow in the city. There are already 70 similar cameras, for example, in areas like Gough and Franklin streets and on Mission Street, he said.
The cameras do not record, Rose said, and they feed to a Muni control center at 1455 Market Street, not to law enforcement.
Rose did not immediately provide the cameras' make and model, but noted that they do have the ability to “pan, zoom, and tilt” — meaning, they could peer away from the street and onto, say, a crowd of football fans. Or protesters.
That's a believable cover story, but the timing is still questionable — as is the need to install them without public notice (as Muni was able to do under the SFGo program).
“If these cameras are solely for traffic purposes, there needs to be an enforceable policy that strictly limits their use for that purpose,” said Matt Cagle, policy attorney for technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The risk here, as with so many other surveillance technologies, is that the cameras will remain up after the Super Bowl is long over, and will be used for purposes beyond just traffic control.”
So for now, anyway, might be best to not pick your nose on Market. Muni can see you.