By Noah Sanders

If while sitting at a stoplight in your car (or on your bike) and you find yourself idly staring upwards at the tangle of lights and technology that adorn the light posts, you might see a new addition that looks a little like that thing in the photo above.

If you are like myself – a 32-year-old raised on a steady diet of science fiction – you look up and see a pair of dull, white squares peering down on the populace, and well, you can start feeling the tug of paranoia. Is the government monitoring my every movement with these little buggers? Are these directional devices for future drones that will swoop down to carry away my children for brain-harvesting? Are these the control boxes for a series of hidden cameras built to look like pigeons and if so, are they getting my best side?

On Reddit, sweet purveyor of both truths and mistruths, a slew of theories exist – some steeped in actual facts, others pulled from the writings of Philip K. Dick, Cory Doctorow, and George Orwell. Maybe they’re San Francisco’s version of the ShotSpotter – a controversial gunshot detection system that's used in Oakland, but may be scrapped due to cost. Or maybe they’re Fastrak readers, devices many of us use for convenience in paying bridge tolls. Some think Fastraks are also being used to accrue road data and ominously trace our every movement. Possibly, those boxes are just the most mundane of things – cellular extenders owned by the corporate overlords of cellphone companies, just giving us a little extra reach on our old celly-cell. 

In truth, the small white squares, Proxim Wireless transponders to be exact, perched atop a selection of the city’s intersections have more to do with ensuring safety than anything else. Recently in Los Angeles, the fire department has started implementing “Traffic Signal Preemption Systems,” or radio transponders slapped on to the sides of their fire trucks that interact with other sensors connected to streetlights to change the lights from red to green. The transponders get emergency vehicles faster to their, well, emergencies. Based on the location of these sensors (intersections near fire stations) and the directional positioning of the devices (aimed from the streetlights towards the fire stations and the other sensors) it might be safe to assume that these are San Francisco’s very own light-changing devices. On Geneva, near City College, a trio of the devices loosely circle the SFFD fire station there, allowing firefighters the option, when emergency calls, to turn the lights on Geneva and Ocean green, clear the existing traffic, before the big red trucks come barreling down the street, sirens screaming.

Sure, I’d like to believe that the government is tracking our brainwaves through eerie white boxes, but the truth is far simpler and, in a way, far more benevolent.

Photo via Reddit