UPDATED Muni Has Facial Detection Technology for its “Traffic Cameras”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had a headline that said SFTMA wants facial “recognition” technology, when in fact the new “traffic cameras” have merely facial “detection” technology. As in: the cameras can see that you have a face, but not whose face it is. In traffic. The original post follows below.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has been busy adding to its stock of surveillance equipment.

The agency, which oversees Muni and the myriad street closures currently in effect to make way for the Super Bowl, has set up new “traffic cameras” in the areas along Market Street that will be closed to traffic for all the big deal surrounding the big game.

That set off alarms among privacy advocates — why do you need a traffic camera in an area closed to traffic? — who also pointed out that the SFTMA was, for some reason, also seeking “traffic” cameras with “face detection” technology. 

Bids are due today for prospective entrepreneurs to supply Muni with an additional 150 high-tech Samsung security cameras. In addition to the ability to pan, tilt, and zoom, the $1,700 cameras also have the face recognition ability, as the Chronicle noted today.

So why do you need a traffic camera with face recognition detection technology — if it's only for traffic, never to be shared with police, and does not have the ability to record, as Muni officials continue to insist?

[jump] That's actually a very good question that's been answered only with varying versions of “trust us.” Muni spokesman Paul Rose, in comments to the Chronicle today, noted that fancy software is also required to use the face recognition detection technology in the cameras — and that's not something Muni has or plans to obtain, he said.

The cameras are supposedly going to be viewed by a traffic supervisor stationed at a Muni building on Market Street who will view the feeds in real-time only, and direct traffic or resources to a particular area after, say, an accident, Rose says.

There are already other cameras positioned around town doing that job right now, he notes. 

Muni officials have also said that the new cameras, in addition to the ones already positioned on Market Street, are also not for the use of police, who supposedly do not have access to the live feeds, secured as they are behind Muni's “firewall,” Rose said.

But the same Twitter-based privacy advocates who dug up the bidding documents that show how sophisticated Muni's cameras are also point out that, at least according to a press release from Mayor Ed Lee, police are indeed able to view at least some traffic camera feeds.

It's not immediately clear what accountability Muni will be subjected to in order to verify the cameras' use, or when the new 150 cameras will be installed.

But if the best a camera-shy public from a public agency is wasted potential, they may be in luck.

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