Smart Cities, Surreptitious Surveillance, Candid Cameras

In 2016, I and a cou­ple of friends were among the many peo­ple who were upset at how then-may­or of Sacra­men­to, Kevin John­son, had respond­ed to the actions of Sean Thomp­son, a local advo­cate for house­less vet­er­ans’ issues. Thomp­son threw a pie in Johnson’s face dur­ing a Seeds of HOPE Har­vest Din­ner. John­son respond­ed by pum­mel­ing Thompson’s face before police arrest­ed Thomp­son, bring­ing him to a hos­pi­tal and book­ing him into jail. We want­ed to let the city and coun­ty know that we were upset with Thompson’s treat­ment, so we request­ed sev­er­al doc­u­ments detail­ing both the City’s and the Dis­trict Attorney’s rela­tion­ship to the house­less pop­u­la­tion.

As of pub­li­ca­tion, the Dis­trict Attor­ney has not released any respon­sive records. The City, how­ev­er, was far more will­ing and eager to help. The doc­u­ments they sent in response are post­ed at the bot­tom of this essay and at the Inter­net Archive.

The City pro­vid­ed four gen­er­al types of records. The first type of record is emails. The sec­ond type includes com­mu­ni­ca­tions and plans about goings-on with­in the City. The third includes sales pitch doc­u­ments from com­pa­nies that sell “smart city” sur­veil­lance tech to cities. The fourth is reports and arti­cles from law enforce­ment and law enforce­ment-adja­cent offices (like trade mag­a­zines) that dis­cuss cur­rent and pro­posed law enforce­ment poli­cies and practices—crowd sup­pres­sion, sport­ing events, and body-worn cam­eras. Giv­en the cur­rent cul­tur­al and social trends in this coun­try toward a “lenient cen­trism,” which is to say a non-com­mit­tal acqui­es­cence to an ascen­dant and embold­ened fas­cism, the third and fourth cat­e­gories begin to reveal the depth into pri­vate life these law enforce­ment offices seek to obtain.

The impli­ca­tions of Siemens Smart City tech­nol­o­gy are dire. The title of one doc­u­ment is “Siemens Smart City Tech­nol­o­gy Exec­u­tive Pre­sen­ta­tion” and it promis­es to “trans­form[] cities for the bet­ter through sus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy.” How does it trans­form cities? The angle is eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal­ism. Con­sid­er the city’s “ver­ti­cal real estate,” implores Siemens. Any munic­i­pal pole, whether it’s a street light, stop­light, or tele­phone pole, can be used to mount cam­eras, micro­phones, util­i­ty meters, lights, or what­ev­er else the city wants to put up.

Hav­ing cre­at­ed a prob­lem to solve, Siemens enters with the solu­tion. These poles are clunky and clut­tered and you can tell what each piece of equip­ment does, you are told. Siemens promis­es to solve these prob­lems with a “unique, mul­ti-func­tion plat­form.” It’s a small box that fits on top of pro­pri­etary street­lights.

This box func­tions as a wifi router, cell site, last mile con­tent deliv­ery sys­tem, “audio stream­ing mes­sage sys­tem” (i.e. a PA sys­tem), air qual­i­ty sen­sor, envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor, elec­tric vehi­cle charg­er, tem­per­a­ture and chem­i­cal mon­i­tor, util­i­ty grade meter, seis­mo­graph, light­ing con­troller; it fea­tures “indi­vid­ual patrolling and facial recog­ni­tion,” gun­shot and van­dal­ism detec­tion, crowd detec­tion and count­ing, and 360-degree HD video record­ing stored for up to 28 days. The sales doc­u­ments present this with­out a hint of apol­o­gy; in fact, there is no attempt to engage at all with the poten­tial neg­a­tive con­se­quences of such a com­pre­hen­sive sur­veil­lance sys­tem.

This is not the only slideshow from Siemens, how­ev­er. Includ­ed in the pile of respon­sive doc­u­ments was a pre­sen­ta­tion called “Siemens Smart City Solu­tions: Per­for­mance Based Out­comes for Cities.” Here, Siemens talks about “frankenpoles,”as though being able to see all the dif­fer­ent sur­veil­lance appa­ra­tus­es is an obsta­cle to be over­come. The com­mu­ni­ty must not under­es­ti­mate the public’s aes­thet­ic inter­est in a device like the one Siemens is sell­ing.

Siemens is cer­tain­ly not the only com­pa­ny pitch­ing these sales doc­u­ments. Panasonic’s 2016 “Video Sur­veil­lance Cat­a­log” (tagline: “Record. Cap­ture. Con­trol. With peace of mind.”) is 34 pages of sur­veil­lance cam­eras and their fea­tures. The Pana­son­ic cat­a­log is more of a build-your-own-sur­veil­lance-state, where­as the Siemens angle is a sin­gle-item holis­tic sys­tem.

Anoth­er sales pitch doc­u­ment pro­vid­ed by Sacra­men­to is from a com­pa­ny called VideoIn­sight. The VideoIn­sight web­site ( redi­rects to a sub­do­main ( This pilot pro­gram is direct­ed towards school sys­tems. Two schools in Ten­nessee, three schools in Flori­da, and one school or school dis­trict each in North Car­oli­na and Alaba­ma. Inter­est­ing­ly, under “Schools that have ben­e­fit­ted from the Pilot Pro­gram” you’ll find the Mur­ray Coun­ty Sheriff’s Depart­ment, of Mur­ray Coun­ty, GA.

Com­pa­nies are cap­i­tal­iz­ing on these tech­nolo­gies, which do not dra­mat­i­cal­ly alter safe­ty or secu­ri­ty to the spaces they watch. Instead, those who wield insti­tu­tion­al pow­er use these tech­nolo­gies to sig­ni­fy that pow­er.

Anoth­er arti­cle in this series will detail the trade mag­a­zines for police in Sacra­men­to. FOIA Horse will con­tin­ue to update this post as more sales doc­u­ments become avail­able.

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