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Cameras to keep eye on threats at Muni stations

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Track stars: A $3.6 million program will introduce cameras at Muni stations, starting with Church Street and Forest Hill stations. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Track stars: A $3.6 million program will introduce cameras at Muni stations, starting with Church Street and Forest Hill stations.

Waiting for Muni? You might want to refrain from an impromptu break-dancing session or stop that desire to scream out randomly at passers-by.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is set to install 400 high-tech cameras that are designed to detect abnormal behavior and subsequently alert authorities about potential safety risks. However, the technology has caused alarm, with some saying big government is going too far.

Using behavioral-recognition software, the cameras can pick up on large gatherings in underground stations or unattended packages, Muni spokesman Paul Rose said. He said they can detect a car on train tracks, then pass that information to central command, which could then stop nearby trains.

“This is about increasing safety and security for our customers, our system and our city,” he said. “This is not profiling, but rather behavioral analytics that can determine common trends on the system and use that information to detect abnormalities.”

Riders and civil rights advocates have expressed concerns. Comparisons to Big Brother, the omnipresent government arm in the novel “1984,” were frequently cited by passengers, who questioned the cameras’ abilities to discern between genuinely dangerous patterns and plain old San Francisco wackiness.

“Who is to say what is suspicious behavior?” said Kaleb Wyman, a frequent Muni rider. “I think it’s pretty weird that a computer will be deciding if I’m acting normal.”

Sean Hart, another rider, said the security presence in transit stations already makes him uncomfortable.

“We’re already profiled enough, whether it’s at the airport or other spots,” Hart said. “We don’t need this kind of technology.”

Linda Lye, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said these new types of technologies are unproven and they raise questions about whether the privacy trade-offs are worth the potential safety increases.

“It’s been real difficult for humans to predict crime, and computers are only going to be more fallible,” Lye said.

“What’s going to count as anomalous behavior? Could it be someone distributing political
leaflets in the subway?”

The $3.6 million program — paid for with state and federal grants — will be rolled out early next year at Muni portals such as the Church Street and Forest Hill stations. Later in the year, the cameras will be introduced at downtown stations. It will take five years to complete the system’s entire installation.

The contract did not require approval from the agency’s board of directors. Still, SFMTA board Chairman Tom Nolan said he did not have a problem with the plan.

“Cameras are ubiquitous now,” Nolan said. “You just have to assume that someone is always watching you.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com