Smart street light plan in District prompting privacy worries

A plan to replace the District's 75,000 street lights is prompting privacy concerns over the kind of technology being used and questions about capabilities to spy on residents.

In a joint program between the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Office of Public-Private Partnerships or OP3, both agencies say the smart street light technology being eyed does not include plans for surveillance devices.

The agencies are collecting information from 11 possible bidders for the contract to install and maintain the new street lights.

Kathryn Roos, interim director of OP3, reassured residents that surveillance was not being considered at a public meeting about the street lights in Anacostia Wednesday night.

Yet companies marketing the technology to cities across the nation, like GE, emphasize in materials online with recording devices such as surveillance cameras and tools to monitor for gunshots.

According to digital news outlet Quartz, federal agencies are already embedding surveillance cameras in street lights. Federal contracts show the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have purchased the technology in several Texas cities.

DDOT says the goal in upgrading the existing street lights is to save money and modernize the operation and servicing of the lights. The bulbs will be upgraded to LED lights, which are energy efficient. They will also be remotely controlled and in some instances have WiFi hotspots embedded, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.

Monica Hopkins, executive director of ACLU DC, wants to be sure the District stays true to its promise to exclude surveillance technology. She says the ACLU hopes the process, which is still in the early stages, remains transparent and inclusive of the community.

"We encourage community members to reach out to their council members and ask hard questions, and ensure that these light bulbs actually brighten our streets and do not have the technology to actually surveil community members," said Hopkins.